Because of fierce opposition to the adoption of the newly drafted Constitution by the anti-federalists, several of the independent American states proposed amending the document to better protect the states as well as individuals from the incursions of the centralized federal government. Thus these ten new planks were drafted, debated, and eventually adopted. They became the first ten amendments to the Constitution—finally ratified on this day in 1791. Ultimately, this Bill of Rights, as the amendments came to be known, proved to be among the greatest cornerstones of American liberty.
The preamble—often edited out of school book copies of the Bill of Rights—laid out the purposes of the amendments as well as the character of the fledgling federal union, “The conventions of a number of states having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: and as extending the ground of public confidence in the government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
The first of the amendments, quite contrary to modern interpretations, clearly prohibited the new federal government from restricting religion in any way shape or form, as well as providing for free speech and expression, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The second of the amendments clearly expresses the need for citizens to be able to defend themselves against the incursions of oppressors—including those that might come from the government itself, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments secured legal rights for the citizens against possible incursions by the government, while the ninth asserted the extremely limited nature of government allowable by the new constitution—only those prerogatives specifically enumerated by the covenant could be exercised, and no more, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Finally, the tenth of the amendments asserted that any governmental powers not specifically assigned to the new federal union automatically remained in the hands of either the states or the people, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
It was a remarkable hedge of protection that has served for all these many years now to preserve the unprecedented freedoms of the American people.