The spirit of 1791

Sunday, December 16, 2001

Some years are more historic than others.

The next time conversation stalls at a cocktail party or over lunch, ask your guests this question: What was the single most pivotal year in the history of the United States?

Some may make the case for 1776, the year we declared our independence. Others may nominate 1865, citing the end of the Civil War and the literal re-union of this nation. Others may nominate 1941, pointing to Pearl Harbor and its eventual impact on the balance of world power. Still others may cite 2001, recognizing that the events of Sept. 11 may have decades-long consequences.

But consider the remarkable events of 1791:

  • The Bank of the United States opened for business, establishing a main branch in Philadelphia and other branches across the country.

  • Congress passed the first Internal Revenue law, placing a tax on distilled spirits.
  • George Washington selected the site for the nation’s capital.
  • Vermont became the 14th state in the Union.

But these milestones pale by comparison to the biggest news event of 1791: the ratification of the Bill of Rights, which took place 210 years ago on Dec. 15.

By guaranteeing Americans certain fundamental liberties, the Founding Fathers helped ensure the longevity of this new nation, establishing a government founded on freedom.

Few Americans know how the Bill of Rights really came about.

What little we can recall from our grade school and high school textbooks leads us to view the Constitution and its amendments as a whole, rather than the negotiated guarantee of liberty that they truly represent.

The Constitution was drafted in 1787. It created a blueprint for a new kind of government, with a balance of legislative, judicial and executive powers. But it was not an easy sell.

The American people were reluctant to embrace a document that would create a strong and powerful central government. They were leery about potential abuses of individual rights.

Those fears were only calmed — and the Constitution ratified — when Congress promised to provide specific guarantees of liberty in the form of the Bill of Rights. In effect, the new government was given the power it sought in exchange for promising power to the people. This was a contract between the government and the people it serves.

In September 1789, Congress approved 12 amendments and sent them to the states to be ratified. Among the rights guaranteed:

  • The First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

  • The Second Amendment right to bear arms.
  • The Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • The promise of fair trials made in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments.

On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was finally ratified when Virginia became the 10th of 14 states to approve 10 of the 12 amendments.

Despite its longevity, the Bill of Rights is no less potent today than it was in 1791. This is a living, evolving document that continues to shape our nation. In recent days:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s decision permitting students to craft their own graduation messages – including prayers. The U.S. Court of Appeals saw the class message as free speech and not a violation of the First Amendment’s religion clause.

  • Three men were released from an Illinois prison after DNA evidence established they had been wrongfully convicted in unfair trials. All had been serving life sentences for murder.
  • A physical education teacher in Portland, Ore., who alleged she was dismissed for speaking out and trying to protect the rights of disabled students, was awarded more than $1 million by a federal jury that found she was fired unfairly.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union joined the Rev. Jerry Falwell to challenge a Virginia law that would limit how much property a church can own.
  • Amid concerns about the protection of civil liberties during the war on terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft criticized his critics: “Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.” While some accused Ashcroft of demonizing dissent, his remarks actually led to an outpouring of support for our most fundamental freedoms and the right to disagree with our government.

Every day, the Bill of Rights resonates in the lives of Americans. It affects what we say, what we read, where we worship and how we see ourselves in a free society.

The Founding Fathers gave us their greatest gift 210 years ago – and it’s never been more vital.