It was 217 years ago today that our nation’s Bill of Rights went into effect, having been ratified by three-fourths of the states. These first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, authored primarily by James Madison, were designed to accomplish two ends: firmly limiting the powers of the new federal government and clearly defining the rights of individuals.
It’s hard, of course, to pick the most important of our rights. What good is freedom of speech without protection from warrantless search? How free is your practice of religion going to be if soldiers can quartered in your home? Can the people feel empowered to petition government for redress without also knowing they can keep arms? Does it matter that you can confront witnesses against you in court if you also don’t have the right to a jury trial?
The most ignored has been the 9th and 10th Amendments. With just 21 words, the 9th Amendment’s meaning is clear to even the most rudimentary of readers: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” That is followed by the 28 words of the 10th Amendment, reserving rights not delegated in the Constitution, including the amendments, to the states and the people.
It is safe to say that constitutional literacy is at an all-time low. Absent knowledge of our rights, it is all but impossible for us to know when they are being abridged.
In honor of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, I hope you will take the opportunity today to re-read them, and perhaps even peruse the Constitution. Let us in so doing resolve to devote ourselves to the preservation of liberty on these shores.