THE BLOG

Surprise - It's Bill of Rights Day

12/15/2011 09:17 am ET | Updated Feb 14, 2012

Two hundred twenty years ago today, on December 15, 1791, something happened that changed history forever. Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights, which, as the 10th state to do so, made it part of the Constitution.


The ways this changed history were myriad, foremost among them by preserving the fledgling new country called the United States of America, after the Articles of Confederation had failed. Most Americans don't realize that without ratification of the Bill of Rights, the deal between the states on the new Constitution would have fallen apart, and with it quite possibly the United States itself.

Today, 220 years later, the Bill of Rights remains the heart and soul of who we are as a people, and why America remains an inspiration to those everywhere seeking their liberty. Its ingenious balance of personal freedoms and political principles has proven both dynamic and durable, becoming one of history's most important and influential documents as the global road map for basic human rights.

It's a remarkable story. All the more remarkable when you consider that, as a high school history teacher from Nogales, Arizona, pointed out to me, the provisions of the Bill of Rights only applied to roughly 5% of the human beings living within the United States when it was ratified in 1791. They didn't apply to slaves. They didn't apply to Native Americans. They didn't apply in large part to women, and only in full to white males of a certain amount of property and position.

And yet there is no exclusionary language within the Bill of Rights itself. So as our concept of individual liberty evolved through the experience of it -- as well as through the wrenching tragedy of civil war -- we had the blueprint already in hand to build on, to the point where today it is universally accepted that these freedoms and principles belong to everyone.

Accepted, that is, by those with any clear knowledge of them. The sad fact is that at this key crossroads in the life our nation, the Bill of Rights is barely taught in our schools anymore, and nowhere to be found in our public square. Worse, it is so uncelebrated in our public discourse that last December 15, while flipping through the morning news shows, I heard the following on no less than three networks: "It's December 15, and you know what that means? It's National Cupcake Day."

Meanwhile, our politics is mired in a Never Never Land where the word "compromise" is only uttered as an expletive by those bent on enforcing their will (and extending their incumbency) at the expense of meaningful dialogue and any serious attempt to craft comprehensive and inclusive solutions.

These power brokers would do well to remember that the Bill of Rights was itself the product of compromise, one that was reached with nothing less than the fate of the nation at stake. When a
group called the Federalists sits down with a group called the Anti-Federalists and hammers out an agreement, that's a compromise. And not compromise as a lack of principle, but compromise as a principle: the principle of respect for the knowledge and interests of others, and for the limitations of one's own.

They should also remember that this compromise was reached between the most brilliant minds of their generation. Yet each one among them had enough humility in that brilliance to realize that no one or group among them knew everything, and so they compromised. Two hundred and twenty years later, the result speaks for itself.

Personally, I've never met anyone who knew everything, though I've met a fair amount of people who apparently don't know a damn thing. Not coincidentally, they are usually the ones who think they have all the answers, if everyone else would just shut up and let them run things for a while.

The founders knew from bitter experience that this is the tyrant's mindset, and that any such concentrations of power are inherently abusive to individual liberty. Not just the power of the state, but all concentrations of power, whether political, military, religious, or economic. That's just the nature of power, and of those that seek it.

So they strived to design a system of checks and balances that curbed the worst parts of our human nature while liberating the best, with their focus on individual liberty, as they were also wary of the "tyranny of the majority." In such a system, the necessity for compromise is proof that the design is working.

America is the first nation in history founded around such a set of ideas and principles, rather than a single race or culture. Our greatest achievements can be traced to when we've fought to live up to these ideals, and our worst failures to when we've abandoned them.

Looking down the difficult road ahead, it couldn't be a better time to revisit and reinvigorate the enduring genius of our Bill of Rights. I hope you'll join with MyBillofRights.org in celebrating its 220th anniversary.