The Bill of Rights at 225: Why History Matters
Feb 16, 2017
David Rubenstein, National Constitution Center Trustee and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, gives a history lesson on the drafting of the Bill of Rights at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Congress ratified the Bill of Rights 225 years ago, on December 15, 1791. The document was a last-minute recommendation at the Constitutional Convention four years earlier. David Rubenstein, trustee at the National Constitution Center, says the founding fathers nearly passed it off. Ready to return home after months of intensive work drawing up a new Constitution, the men were weary — they debated in a hot room behind closed doors and windows, curtains drawn for privacy. “There were about five days to go before they were going to end in September,” says Rubenstein “and they were very eager to go home.” But George Mason, a politician from Virginia, urged the framers to add a bill of rights that would protect citizens. He, along with two others, refused to sign the Constitutional document without a bill of rights. After the founders signed the Constitution, it still needed approval from the 13 states. Many of them demanded a bill of rights. “At virtually every one of these state conventions, this argument was raised: We need to have a bill of rights.”
It was Congressman James Madison who examined 200 recommendations from the states and narrowed them to 19 amendments for the Bill of Rights. After being reviewed by a committee, the House, and the Senate, the number of amendments was narrowed to 12. Finally, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, was ratified.
Rubenstein says the Bill of Rights were viewed as insignificant from the time they were adopted until the 1920s and 1930s. “There weren’t a lot of cases or litigation involving the protection of minorities and other people who often benefit from the Bill of Rights.” Now, he says, we regard the Bill of Rights as the bulwark of our freedoms. “So the irony is that the Bill of Rights today,” says Rubenstein, “which we consider to be so important and such an important part of our Constitution and legal system, was not something that many members of Congress really wanted.”
By Marci Krivonen, Associate Editor/Producer, Public Programs