Bill of Rights

December 15 has long been celebrated as the anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights. On that day in 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify ten amendments proposed by Congress to the newly-implemented Constitution, thus satisfying the three-quarters requirement in Article V of the Constitution. The history of a bill of rights stretched far back to ancient Greece and Rome. Colonial Americans embraced bills of rights in their charters and other fundamental laws. In debating whether to ratify a new federal Constitution, Americans demanded that it should contain a bill of rights. Only with such assurances was the Constitution adopted. Within six months, the first federal Congress proposed twelve amendments, and two and a half years later Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed the states that ten of the amendments had been adopted.

The Northwest Ordinance, 13 July 1787

The Northwest Ordinance is one of the great American Founding documents. Often it is considered as the single most important accomplishment under the Articles of Confederation. The Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory northwest of the Ohio River, but a fugitive slave clause provided for the return of runaway slaves. That clause—nonexistent in the Articles of Confederation—was copied into the draft Constitution in 1787 and was supported by Southerners and opposed by some Northerners during the debate over ratification. The clause provided the constitutional justification for federal fugitive slave acts in 1793 and 1850. The former was largely ignored, but the latter became an important step in the coming of the Civil War.

Manipulating the Electoral Vote: Echoes of 1800

The results of the presidential election in Wisconsin have now been certified. But now lawsuits are attempting to overturn the results of both the popular election and the anticipated vote of the electoral college. Federal courts have consistently rejected these attempts to change the outcome of the current presidential election. A similar attempt to undermine the will of the people occurred in 1800 when New York’s Governor John Jay refused to participate in a bit of legislative chicanery orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton that would have manipulated the electoral college and perpetuated the incumbent President John Adams and defeated his challenger Thomas Jefferson.

Disrupting an Election: Hertford County, N.C.

Politics nowadays often turn nasty as opposing political parties seek to discredit their opponents. Although more common today, political shenanigans occasionally occurred when Americans debated whether to adopt or reject the newly proposed Constitution in 1787–1788. A good example of such trickery occurred in Hertford County, N.C., in March 1788.

Rioting in Dobbs County, N.C.

Free, frequent, and honest elections are essential in republics. Between 1787 and 1790, more than 1,600 delegates were elected to the state conventions to ratify the Constitution. Most of these elections were uneventful, but a few were disputed and some were fraught with intimidation or violence.

Happy Birthday John Adams

October 30 is the 285th anniversary of the birth of John Adams. Most historians believe that it was fortuitous that Adams, serving in London as U.S. minister to Great Britain, did not attend the Constitutional Convention because he would have been a disruptive force who would have opposed compromise. Although physically not present in the Convention, Adams was there in spirit, and he had a profound impact on the shape of the new Constitution proposed in September 1787.

Midnight Appointments in Judiciary Politics

Increasingly, federal judicial appointments have become enmeshed in partisan politics. The first significant partisanship over judicial appointments occurred during the waning days of the administration of John Adams as the lame duck Federalist Congress and President tried to stifle the anticipated radicalism of the incoming Jefferson administration. Within his last three weeks in office, President Adams made many judicial appointments that were confirmed by the Senate. Denounced as Adams’s “midnight appointments,” they set the stage for a persistent conflict between the judiciary and the other branches of the federal government as well as a growing conflict between the jurisdiction of the federal and state judiciaries.

How to Pick a Judge

Judicial appointments are critically important, especially appointments to the Supreme Court. In implementing the Constitution, President George Washington nominated all of the Supreme Court justices and all of the federal district judges. He developed criteria that helped him to select “the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice” because “the happiness of our country and the stability of its’ political system” depended on it.

Order: Republics and Democracies

After declaring their independence from a despotic British monarchy, Americans strongly supported the creation of democratic republics with most authority given to state assemblies. Within a decade, however, most Americans believed that the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first constitution proposed by the Continental Congress in November 1777, needed to be revised. A Constitutional Convention met for four months and proposed a new Constitution that contained many anti-democratic provisions that inspired an intense public debate over the nature of government and how best to preserve liberty.

Single Most Important Speech in the Debate over Ratifying the Constitution

On 6 October 1787, James Wilson, a prominent Philadelphia attorney and a former delegate to the Constitutional Convention, delivered perhaps the single most important speech in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Wilson asserted that a bill of rights was unnecessary because Congress possessed only delegated powers, none of which could violate long-cherished personal rights and the authority of state governments. Furthermore, Wilson suggested that republics did not need bills of rights to protect the people from their own representatives. Reprinted throughout the country, Wilson’s position became the standard Federalist argument.