The 217th anniversary of an event cannot warrant an especially big celebration. As far as I know, 217 isn’t a celebratory number. Not like 200, or, perhaps 222 (that’s for those of you who like to see all the numerals line up on your odometer). Maybe in Babylonian math it is, or Mayan; not in ours.
But if the event is important enough, the anniversary remains worth celebrating, even in off years.
I’m referring to tomorrow’s designation as Bill of Rights Day. December 15, 1791 was the day the first ten amendments were added to the Constitution. Now, before you send out an e-card, or write a check to your favorite rights-defending institution — the ACLU is the most famous, but there is also the Individual Rights Foundation and the Institute for Justice (among others) — it is probably worth clearing up a few things about the Bill of Rights.
1. Without it, the Constitution would not have been adopted.
The mis-named “anti-Federalists” were deeply concerned. They were afraid that the Constitution would quickly morph away from what the Federalists promised, away from a truly federal union where the states retained sovereignty. They feared that the Constitution would not be treated as a federalist document at all, but as a nationalist one. And the fact that quite a number of so-called Federalists had come out for nationalism and monarchy and a whole bunch of other rightly loathed institutions and isms, didn’t help the anti-Federalists sit easy.
You can learn a lot about all this in Kevin R. C. Gutzman’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution. Gutzman makes clear how the nationalist-leaning Federalists, needing anti-Federalist support, cooked up a fairly federalist document.
Even so, the anti-Federalists were suspicious. Where were the guarantees of individual rights?
So, those much-maligned, truly federalist “anti-Federalists” gave us the one part of the Constitution that has been successfully used, on multiple occasions, to push back government. Many states ratified the Constitution contingent upon a Bill of Rights being added on immediately. And so it came to pass (or: “be ratified”).
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