Monday, November 4, 2013

The Amendments - Introduction

After a contentious battle to ratify the Constitution, hard questions remained in the minds of many, specifically the Anti-Federalists, led by Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee and Elbridge Gerry.  They were wary of a too-powerful federal government and wanted assurances that certain personal freedoms, liberties and rights would be protected.

Federalists, on the other hand, notably James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, did not initially see the need for a "bill of rights", being convinced that the states themselves would be sufficient to check the power of the federal government.

Several states, including Massachusetts, New York and Virginia, linked their ratification votes to the inclusion of such a bill, and eventually many of the Federalists came to support it.  In the first Congress, James Madison himself became the primary author of the set of amendments.  After another lengthy set of debates, where amendments were added, deleted and amended themselves, the final bill of rights was announced by Secretary of State Jefferson as being adopted as a set of ten on March 1, 1972.

We have talked before here about the necessity of amending the Constitution and here about the process for doing it.  Let's talk now about the actual intent and content of Amendments that have been ratified.

Generally, the main body of the Constitution is not terribly controversial (thought the every-four-years exercise of presidential elections always re-ignites the debate over the Electoral College, discussed here.  The amendments, however, and the first ten in particular, continue to plague us with controversy.  I would venture to say that Amendments 1, 2, 4, 5 and 10 have sparked more debate, follow-on legislation and lawsuits than the rest of the Constitution put together.  I have no empirical data to back up that claim, but it sure seems like it.

Before we dive into the specifics of each amendment (read the Bill of Rights here now - it'll only take a couple minutes), let's consider a couple big questions to keep in mind as we discuss them:

1.  Is there an absolute right to anything, without restriction?

2. Does the Constitution (and therefore, the federal governments) grant rights, or is its function to protect them?  There is a critical difference between the two ideas.


Next up - The First Amendment

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