Although it is not an official holiday, Dec. 15 marks an important day in American history. On this day in 1791, the United States government formally adopted the first ten Amendments into the Constitution. These first ten Amendments are also known as the Bill of Rights. According to the U.S Constitution Online, some scholars believe that the United States Constitution would not have been accepted by the people if these amendments had not been added: Several states at that time had already added a bill of rights to their own constitutions in order to ensure that certain rights would be recognized by the state government, and so they expected the Federal Government to follow suit. Because of this, some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention refused to sign the Constitution until something of the same nature was added.
James Madison drew up the original draft of what would become the Bill of Rights. He introduced the bill to the House, and after much debate, 17 of the articles were accepted. The Senate then took up the bill, who trimmed the number down to 12 by combining some ideas and dismissing others. The House voted on these changes on Sept. 24 and 25, 1789, resulting in approval of these 12 Amendments. Finally, the legislation was sent to the states for ratification so that it might be solidified as law.
The first two Amendments of the original twelve were never ratified. The last 10 were approved by a majority of the states by 1791, which enabled them to be added. Thus, the Bill of Rights found a place in the United States Constitution. This year marks the 218th year since their acceptance.
Although the words of these Amendments of have not changed, in the 218 years that have passed, the meaning of this legislation has morphed greatly. It is important to understanding of individual rights as Americans to think about how the interpretation of laws and Amendments can change the meaning and methods of enforcement without formally changing the actual wording through the official Amendment process. It is also interesting to point out that the President has no official power in the Amendment process, besides making their opinion on the matter known. The President cannot veto an amendment proposal or ratification.
The term “Informal Amendment” has been dubbed to describe the way that the meaning of the Constitution has changed throughout our country’s history. The first way that often serves as a catalyst for this to happen is in the courts. For example, the Privacy Cases of the past few decades has drastically changed the way the Constitution has been interpreted. Before these cases, it was within constitutional interpretation to forbid abortion, interracial marriages, and married couples from using contraception. The breakthrough cases like Loving vs. Virginia, Roe vs. Wade, and Griswold vs. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of seeing these as cases of privacy, and that the Constitution protected these rights. Thus, a precedent was set for all other similar cases after these rulings based on changed interpretation.
The second way that Amendments and their enforcement may change is called “Popular Amendment.” Although this method has never really been used, it is still important to consider. The idea of this comes from the words of the Constitution itself: that its power comes from the people, and that its function is to protect and reflect the will of the people. In this line of logic, it follows that if the people demand a change to the Constitution, then such a change should be made. One of the Framers of the Constitution, James Wilson, largely supported this idea. As he stated in 1787, “.the people may change the constitutions whenever and however they please. This is a right of which no positive institution can deprive them.”
Hence, if the people demand a change, but the present Congress and state legislatures do not follow through in the appropriated Amendment process, the people might reject their authority. Such change could weaken the authority of the government completely. Although the details of this process are not fully mapped, it is essential to consider when identifying the meaning of our laws.
Now on Dec. 15, take a look at what those first 10 Amendments mean to us as a society, in the modern mindset and to the people of 218 years ago.
For the complete wording of the Bill of Rights, visit http://www.USConstitution.net.
Juliette Honsinger is a third-year student majoring in History with a minor in French. She can be reached at JH648769@wcupa.edu.