Monday, September 6, 2010

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights is seen by most Americans as an iconic document - a fitting coda to a long and difficult war for independence and the recent ratification of a brand new - and radically modern - Constitution. The document also was viewed at the time as a belated victory for Anti-federalists, who had strenuously opposed that Constitution. It was, however, a bittersweet victory at best.

A quick refresher: Federalists argued for the need for a strong central U.S. government (with checks and balances); Anti-federalists feared that such a government was a sure road to despotism and wanted a much greater sharing of power between the central government and the states, which had a closer relationship to the governed. (I recently watched a 12-lecture series called "The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution" by Thomas L. Pangle, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, so I am well aware that the issues were more complicated. But do you want to sit through a rehash of 12 lectures?)

Anyway, Anti-federalists hoped the Bill of Rights would include a healthy worry about big government, a guarantee of greater states' rights, and strong exhortations to civic virtue and religious piety. Their hopes were dashed. Bill of Rights author James Madison made sure the amendments did not dilute government powers, limiting the rights to such basic things as the press and religion. (The convoluted 2nd Amendment was perfectly understood at the time. A major issue was the wisdom of a standing U.S. military. The amendment reassured states that their militias would remain vital to America's defense. Gun control, as we now understand it, simply wasn't on anybody's mind.)

What's interesting to me is not the coolness of the Bill of Rights - which is cool indeed - but the issues that were left out of the document. More than 200 years later, those same issues remain central to much of U.S. politics.

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