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.