In May of 1787, the city of Philadelphia played host to 55 men who spent a lot of time debating, arguing, and trying to convince each other of their (and their state’s) beliefs. It had been four years since the American Revolution had officially ended with the stroke of the pen in Paris, and the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781 by the Second Continental Congress, had created the “United States of America” and been its charter document.
But six years later, the Articles were found wanting. Stronger, more permanent language was needed, and the middle months of 1787 provided the venue for the creation of the U.S. Constitution. By July 1 of the next year, all but two of the Thirteen Colonies had ratified it (North Carolina would come aboard in 1789 and Rhode Island in 1790).
Still, not everyone was completely satisfied. Some believed that the Constitution had done a great job of listing the powers of government, limiting them, providing checks and balances, and the like. But they didn’t think it spoke specifically to the basic rights of the individual. Others thought that the Constitution didn’t need to address them, because the Constitution was not a surrender of rights, and listing rights in a document might limit rights to only those listed.
But both sides had lived through the time before the Revolution, when the British Crown had stifled their freedoms and denied them what they believed to be their basic rights. So I’m guessing they pretty quickly understood how a good government today could turn tyrannical down the road, and rights not enumerated could be become rights denied.
And so James Madison (drawing heavily from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights) proposed a set of protections (called the Bill of Rights) for the individual citizen from the government, addressing issues such as religious practices, speech, bearing arms, due process, and self-incrimination. Support from many of the Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Washington meant relatively quick passage through the First Congress. But as Amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights needed to be ratified by three-fourths of the States as well. This was accomplished on December 15, 1791, and they became part of the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights are the “10 Commandments” of the U.S. citizen. They are not laws we have to follow, but “Thou Shalt Nots” by which our government must abide. They were created by the citizen, who was very familiar with a government of tyranny and desperately wanted to avoid it. And they were written by the citizen, whose finger had been dipped in the blood of the American Revolution to shake off that government of tyranny.