On this day in 1791, the Commonwealth of Virginia voted to ratify 12 articles for addition to the U.S. Constitution. With 14 states comprising the union at that time, 11 were required to vote in favor of an amendment in order to reach the necessary ¾ threshold. With Virginia’s action that bar was met, and all the amendments became binding constitutional law – except for poor old Articles One and Two.
Those first two articles – dealing with the apportionment of seats for representatives and the schedule of pay raises for members of Congress – failed to reach the necessary threshold, thus Article Three became what we now know as the First Amendment, and the Bill of Rights became a collection of 10 amendments instead of a full dozen. (Incidentally, the original Article Two is now the 27th Amendment, having finally crossed the ¾ threshold in 1992 - a record 202 years after it was first submitted to the states for ratification.)
As we celebrate Bill of Rights Day this December 15, we should remember this history because it speaks to the enduring power of our civil liberties, and the long and arduous scope of the struggle to defend them. Though ratified a whopping 223 years ago, the Bill of Rights has more relevance in our lives today than ever before. In fact, for much of its early history the first 10 amendments went largely unenforced and affected only the federal government, far different from today where they are actively applied by courts and act as an essential check on government at every level from Congress all the way down to your local town council.
Though we continue to debate exactly how the Bill of Rights should be applied – and though we continue to struggle to close the gap between the rights we are guaranteed on paper and the rights we are actually given in practice – there is no doubt that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution remain immensely valuable to us and can be seen in action every day around America.
We’ve seen it around the country in recent weeks as people rise up in protest against police brutality and institutional racism, exercising their right to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We see it whenever people are pulled over for speeding and properly asserts their rights with a police officer. We see it when people with low incomes are provided attorneys. We see it when defendants are given jury trials and are able to question witnesses. The list goes on and on.
Take a moment today and read through the ACLU’s extensive collection of “Know Your Rights” materials. You’ll find more than 30 different topics covered, ranging from what your rights are with police, to what you’re allowed to photograph, to what rights prisoners have to religious freedom. Many of the rights covered in our various guides deal directly with freedoms you have thanks to the Bill of Rights, with special collections explaining how those basic liberties have been applied to different communities of people. There is a wealth of information on topics large and small and we strongly encourage you to look it over and bookmark it so that you can find it again should you have questions about your rights in future circumstances.
It’s very easy to be cynical about our rights given how frequently they are infringed upon. But we must not take for granted the many rights that we do have, and we must not forget to celebrate the importance of a document that has granted so many essential civil liberties to so many people.
Today, let us celebrate the Bill of Rights and the ideals that it continues to hold up for all to see. Let us embrace the spirit of civil liberties and remember why they are so important. Then, in that very same spirit, let us go out and demand that our government honor every single one of those rights, and that no person be denied the equal protection of the law. Such is the spirit of the Bill of Rights, and with all of us working together, such can be its legacy for many birthdays to come.