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Teach the bill of rights
Teach the bill of rights

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December 15 – Before this date in 1791, the fate of America’s new government was hanging by a thread. Controversy over the Constitution had nearly torn the country in two, fueling a bitter animosity between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The latter favored a state-centric government and treated the new Constitution with deep suspicion; the Federalists despaired that the country would fall into chaos while arguing about it and a new one would be impossible to write. They could not agree, could not discuss it in civil conversation, could not even drink around one another. Even the saloons of the country had to lean one way or another.

As was often the case for this generation, the actions of Massachusetts changed everything. During the state convention arranged to ratify the Constitution, John Hancock and Sam Adams led the Anti-Federalist opposition in bringing the convention to a grinding halt. They wanted to change the wording; Federalists maintained it must be accepted as it is. After much wrangling, the convention compromised by recommending a series of amendments that must be passed along with the main body. “The Convention of Massachusetts adopted the Constitution in toto,” George Washington wrote in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, “but recommended a number of specific alterations and quieting explanations.” Several other states followed Massachusetts’ example, and some refused to even entertain the notion of ratification without a Bill of Rights.

In the end, it was James Madison, history-dubbed Father of the Constitution, that penned the first formal version. Inspirations for the content included John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the Magna Carta. The principle of human rights, sacred and free from government violation, was a common theme in all three. Madison presented the original Bill to Congress in 1789, practically pointing out that – whether the Federalists felt these amendments necessary or not – the country would never allow the Constitution without them. On December 15 of 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the Bill of Rights and they, along with our Constitution, became law.