“We The People”, three words on a 250 year old legal document have never carried so much gravitas in human history. The introduction to the U.S Constitution paints a distinct and contrasting picture to the British tyranny that American colonists rebelled from. This would be a government of the people, for the people, by the people.
“The first 10 Amendments Make up the Bill of Rights. The purpose of the Bill of rights is to outline individual freedoms that were not explicitly stated in the Constitution. Anti-federalists pushed for a bill of rights to outline exactly what individual freedoms the federal government could not infringe upon. The bill of rights remains a legislative shield that protects all citizens from tyrannical rule.”
Under parliamentary rule, American colonists were at the whim of whatever legislation Great Britain deemed fit to support the interests of the commonwealth. Without representation in British government, colonists were subjected to incendiary legislation that pushed colonists to rethink the ways a government should operate in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. This ideological revolution would eventually produce the Bill of Rights, a framework for the protection of all citizens.
What Pushed the Colonists Over the Edge In the First Place?
Rebellion in the colonies was not a clear-cut issue. By some historical counts, only 45 percent of colonists supported the independence movement. The colonial aristocracy, mainly consisting of merchants and men with ties to powerful families, chose to stay loyal to the Crown as their business interests benefited greatly under British rule.
Naturally, those who argued for independence were the working class farmers and laborers who saw their lives greatly impacted by British legislation. There are several key pieces of legislation that sent the fervor for independence cascading towards the ultimate outcome of war.
Sugar Act. Parliament, desiring revenue from its North American colonies, passed the first law specifically aimed at raising colonial money for the Crown. The act increased duties on non-British goods shipped to the colonies.
Currency Act. This act prohibited American colonies from issuing their own currency, angering many American colonists.
Quartering Act. The British further angered American colonists with the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to provide barracks and supplies to British troops.
Stamp Act. Parliament’s first direct tax on the American colonies, this act, like those passed in 1764, was enacted to raise money for Britain. It taxed newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, broadsides, legal documents, dice, and playing cards. Issued by Britain, the stamps were affixed to documents or packages to show that the tax had been paid.
Declaratory Act. The repeal of the Stamp Act did not mean that Great Britain was surrendering any control over its colonies. The Declaratory Act, passed by Parliament on the same day the Stamp Act was repealed, stated that Parliament could make laws binding the American colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
Townshend Acts. To help pay the expenses involved in governing the American colonies, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which initiated taxes on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea.
Tea Act. By reducing the tax on imported British tea, this act gave British merchants an unfair advantage in selling their tea in America. American colonists condemned the act, and many planned to boycott tea.
Coercive Acts. In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed several acts to punish Massachusetts. The Boston Port Bill banned the loading or unloading of any ships in Boston harbor. The Administration of Justice Act offered protection to royal officials in Massachusetts, allowing them to transfer to England all court cases against them involving riot suppression or revenue collection. The Massachusetts Government Act put the election of most government officials under the control of the Crown, essentially eliminating the Massachusetts charter of government.
Quartering Act. Parliament broadened its previous Quartering Act (1765). British troops could now be quartered in any occupied dwelling.
Why Did Great Britain Need to Raise Revenue?:
Although Great Britain was the most powerful empire on Earth at the time of the American Revolution, managing an empire that spanned several continents proved to be extraordinarily costly. At the time the British parliament was contemplating the Sugar Act in 1764, Great Britain was still recovering both monetarily and physically from a ferocious 12 year war with France and its native allies. While the British gained valuable territory throughout North America and the Caribbean, it had several major issues to combat.
With French troops now out of the Ohio River Valley, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe realized that English settlers would soon flood into his lands. The legendary Native American leader understood that an offensive strategy along the frontier would likely be his best option to keep out these colonial settlers. Pontiac united the Ohio River Valley tribes and attacked every colonial fort in the region resulting in thousands dead or held hostage.
Chief Pontiac was finally defeated when British regulars flooded the region and mounted a defensive position. The failure of the colonists to protect themselves led the British parliament to conclude that permanent British garrisons would need to be established to protect colonial interests – a measure that would surely cost thousands.
Colonial merchants had grown ignorant of British trade regulations which consequently cost the British thousands of pounds each year in tariffs. Small fortunes like John Hancock’s had been accrued by expertly bypassing British blockades in the Carribean. During the lead up to the American Revolution, British customs agents estimated that they were only receiving about 2,000 pounds of trade revenue each year compared to the 700,000 pounds of illegal goods that were smuggled into the colonies. With a clear gap in revenue, the British recognized the need for stricter regulations.
A National Debt Crisis
Regardless of the time period, war is expensive. The French and Indian war cost the British a whopping 70 million pounds which doubled the national debt to 140 million pounds. Officials in London estimated that a permanent force in North America would cost 300,000 pounds each year. Many in England grew weary of the mounting debt and felt an uneven burden in paying for the debt. After all, colonists paid only 1/20th of taxes paid by the British. The sentiment in Great Britain was clear – it was time for the colonists to pay their fair share.
The Establishment of the Bill of Rights
When the Revolutionary War finally ended in 1783, the founding fathers quickly worked to establish a democratic government that worked to cure the ills of the tyrannical system they had just overthrown. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments of the U.S. Constitution that came into effect on December 15, 1791, is designed to protect the rights of Americans by limiting the powers of the Federal government, safeguarding individual liberty, and ensuring justice in all legal matters.
Although the Constitution outlined what the federal government could and could not do, many of the founding fathers yearned for a document that outlined individual rights. Specifically, these these rights delineate what protections individuals are afforded and what actions are still considered illegal.
Who Wrote the Bill of Rights?
Delegates from 13 states convened in Philadelphia during the particularly murky summer of 1787 to draft the Constitution of the United States. With guidance from Thomas Jefferson among other founding fathers, James Madison drafted the first 10 amendments of the Constitution. Madison drew heavily from the Constitution of Virginia of 1776, widely considered to be the first constitutional protection of individual rights.
The first draft of this revolutionary document established a framework of checks and balances to ensure tyranny would never again be present in the former colonies. Although the Constitution was and still is revered as a landmark piece of democratic legislation, it did not include any detail on what the federal government could not do or provide a declaration – or bill – of rights.
Furthermore, as we all know, the Constitution did not apply to everyone, only white, male property owners. The absence of a bill of rights became an almost insurmountable obstacle for many states. It would take four years for the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution.
Fierce Debate over the Bill of Rights
The framework of the Bill of Rights was debated for years by each side of the early-American, political spectrum – the Federalists and Anti-federalists.
Unlike the anti-federalists, the federalists did not understand the necessity for a bill of rights. Simply put, federalists believed that the Constitution had outlined exactly what authority was delegated to the federal government. Everything not delegated to the federal government was then reserved for the people.
The federal government’s power lied in the general interests of the nation. Federalists argued that it was already illegal for the federal government to infringe upon freedoms of the press or religion since they did not have the power to regulate either. Listing a series of rights could mean those omitted were not retained and were then free to be violated.
Furthermore, federalists argued that a bill of rights was a useless form of civilian protection. Time and again, bills of rights were trampled on or overridden in crises. Federalists believed that the best method of securing the rights of the people was in the separation of power, bicameralism, and representative democracy.
Anti-federalists believed that people are naturally born free. There are some fundamental rights that can never be given up in the pursuit of the common good. These legislators believed that these fundamental rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) should be explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights in order to explicitly state the limits of government. As such, the Bill of Rights would serve as a guide for citizens to know exactly when their rights were being violated.
Anti-federalists also argued that protections of a bill of rights was especially important in a constitution. Their reasoning was that state bills of rights did not offer any protections from oppressive federal acts because the Constitution had been made the supreme law of the land. Anti-federalists feared that this supreme law clause could lead to a violation of rights. As such, anti-federalists feared the premise of “big-government”.
Understanding the Importance of the Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights provides a shield of protection for each American citizen. The framers wanted to ensure that no government could ever trample over the rights of individuals ever again. It’s important to remember that the first 10 amendments of the Constitution do not outline the certain freedoms that Americans possess, the framers believed that each person, regardless of their country, is born with certain natural rights.
The Bill of Rights only serves to ensure that these rights are held to the highest standard. It is this notion of natural rights and representative democracy, a notion forged during the age of Enlightenment and sharpened during the American Revolution, that has morphed the United States into the superpower it is today.