Bill of Rights: A book review by Bob Morris

Bill of RightsThe Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties
Carol Serkin
Simon & Schuster (2015)

How and why the Bill of Rights “is the most important element in the Constitution”

Once the war for independence from Britain had been won, the most important question to be addressed was this: “Should broad power and authority reside in the federal government or should it reside in the state governments?” Part of the answer can be found in the Constitution whose ratification began with Delaware on December 7, 1787, and ended when the final state, Rhode Island, ratified it on May 29, 1790. It was only with this ratification that the new nation could cope with other challenges, notably survival.

Frankly, until having read Carol Berkin’s book, I had given little thought to how important the Bill of Rights has been to the Constitution, much less to how important it would prove to be during the subsequent development of a new nation that began with thirteen states and now has fifty. When James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights, Belkin observes, “the young nation faced a great ideological divide with regard to [the aforementioned] question: should broad power broad power and authority reside in the federal government or should it reside in the state governments, where the Antifederalists insisted it could best protect the people’s liberties?”

She goes on to observe, “This confrontation between states’ rights and national authority started with the fierce debates over ratification of the Constitution, and it continued in the First Federal Congress, in the state legislatures, and in the press as Washington’s first administration began.”

Berkin’s comments about Madison and his unique significance are especially insightful: “Madison’s Bill of Rights was thus more a political strategy than a statement of America’s most cherished values. Yet Madison was keenly aware of its potential to set a high standard for the relationship between citizens and the men who governed them.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Berkin’s coverage:

o Articles of Confederation conference (Pages 7-12)
o Ratification of Constitution (17-31 and 105-106)
o State ratification conventions (18-21, 26-31, and 105-106)
o Antifederalists (33-42 and 126-128)
o James Madison’s views on Bill of Rights (39-42, 59-61, and 65-66)
o First Federal Congress: 1784 (43-63)
o Federalists in House (47-50, 53-56, 65-67, 99-114, 135-137, and 188-191)
o James Madison’s nine proposals (71-103)
o Elbridge Gerry (62-70, 87-93, 95-102, 108-113, 120-121, and 186-187)
o Committee of Eleven (120-193)
o Development of Federal Government (87-88, 134-135, and 140-143)
o Federalists in Senate (166-117)
o Legacy of American Revolution (139-143)
o Ratification of Bill of Rights (126-130)
o Bios of Senate members (155-173)
o Bios of House members (175-215)

During the president campaign in 2016, presumably there will be differences of opinion again — sometimes severe differences of opinion — about states rights versus the federal government as well as individual rights versus collective rights at the state and federal levels; also between and among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. I agree with Berkin that the Union victory in the Civil War “led to a new, greatly expanded role for the guarantees of the Bill of Rights but it is worth noting, in this context, that women were not permitted to vote until 1920 (Amendment XIX) and segregation in schools was not declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1954.

Here are Carol Berkin’s concluding thoughts: “Despite the fidelity of meaning that marks the history of federalism, the Bill of Rights as fulfilled James Madison’s fervent hope that this ‘parchment barrier’ would benefit the civic and moral development of the nation. It has proved a strong bulwark for our liberties and a safeguard against the majority’s abuse of minorities. And it has established the vocabulary for our most critical discussions of, fiercest debates over, who we are what we think it best to do.”

In this context, I am again reminded of the final stanza of one of James Weldon Johnson’s poems, ” Lift ev’ry voice and sing”:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”

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