We teach our students that America is a land of opportunity, where we do our best to treat each other fairly and ensure that the laws on the books apply equally to all. (Those ideals are sometimes tested, but that’s the goal.) On December 15, one of the bedrock documents that protects those values is turning 225: the Bill of Rights. It’s a good time to reacquaint ourselves with these first amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and to rededicate ourselves to upholding our nation’s fundamental governing charter.
The Bill of Rights protects individual liberties. Some of our nation’s Founding Fathers thought that, given our constitution, it was unnecessary; others, including James Madison, believed safeguards were important. Madison took matters into his own hands and went through the constitution himself, making the changes he thought appropriate. But others objected and Madison’s changes instead were offered as amendments that would have to be ratified.
An exhibit at the National Archives Museum, “Amending America,” explores the fascinating and complicated journey of amending the constitution. The exhibit is open until early September 2017, and if you can’t get to Washington, D.C., many resources, including a free Ebook, are available online. (Did you know that one proposed amendment would have had us elect the president by pulling a ball representing a candidate out of a bowl?)
President Roosevelt first designated Bill of Rights Day in 1941. December 15 was chosen because that is the date, in 1791, when Virginia’s legislature became the last to ratify the amendments.
“It is especially fitting that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn.” (It’s worth reading his proclamation in its entirety—and it’s also rather chilling to note that the president issued it just days before Pearl Harbor.)
When President Obama issued a proclamation for Bill of Rights Day last year, he wrote: “Let us recommit to continuing our legacy as a nation that rejects complacency, empowers its citizens to recognize and redress its imperfections, and embraces the struggle of improving our democracy so that all our people are able to make of their lives what they will.”
In today’s acrimonious political environment, it’s instructive to keep in mind that for the Bill of Rights to exist at all, both houses of Congress had to approve it, and then three-fourths of the states had to give their approval. True, there were only 14 states at the time—but you get my point. Through understanding and compromise, we have the capacity to hold our leaders accountable and accomplish great things.
As we end 2016 and look ahead to both the challenges and the possibilities of 2017, I am comforted by the thought that our nation’s values have helped us weather many storms, and as educators, we can share this view with our students. Great documents such as the Bill of Rights do not just protect our individual liberties; they also inspire us to work even harder to achieve more fairness and more opportunity. I am willing. How about you?