The Bill of Rights

The Fight to Secure America's Liberties

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About The Book

The real story of how the Bill of Rights came to be: a concise, vivid history of political strategy, big egos, and partisan interest that set the terms of the ongoing contest between the federal government and the states.

Revered today for articulating America’s founding principles, the first ten amendments—the Bill of Rights—was in fact a political stratagem executed by James Madison to preserve the Constitution, the Federal government, and the latter’s authority over the states. In the skilled hands of award-winning historian Carol Berkin, the story of the Founders’ fight over the Bill of Rights comes alive in a gripping drama of partisan politics, acrimonious debate, and manipulated procedure. From this familiar story of a Congress at loggerheads, an important truth emerges.

In 1789, the young nation faced a great ideological divide around a question still unanswered today: should broad power and authority reside in the federal government or should it reside in state governments? The Bill of Rights, from protecting religious freedom and the people’s right to bear arms to reserving unenumerated rights to the states, was a political ploy first, and matter of principle second. How and why Madison came to devise this plan, the divisive debates it fostered in the Congress, and its ultimate success in defeating antifederalist counterplans to severely restrict the powers of the federal government is more engrossing than any of the myths that shroud our national beginnings.

The debate over the founding fathers’ original intent still continues through myriad Supreme Court decisions. By pulling back the curtain on the political, short-sighted, and self-interested intentions of the founding fathers in passing the Bill of Rights, Berkin reveals the inherent weakness in these arguments and what it means for our country today.

Excerpt

The Bill of Rights Prologue
For the majority of modern Americans, the Bill of Rights stands as the most important element of the Constitution, the touchstone, as James Madison hoped it would become, of our shared unalienable rights and liberties. Along with the Declaration of Independence, these first ten amendments—with their guarantees of freedom of speech, religion, and the press, and the right to assemble; their promise of a speedy trial by jury; their protection against double jeopardy and unreasonable search and seizure; and their recognition of the right to bear arms—announce to the world our national values and ideals. They have served as the standards by which we measure our individual actions and the actions of our government toward its own citizens.

Yet hallowed by time as the Declaration and the Bill of Rights have become, it is crucial to place these two documents in their historical context and examine the immediate circumstances that generated them. The men who created the Declaration did so to justify a revolution, and the men who passed the Bill of Rights acted to secure the loyalty of citizens wary of their new federal government.

The men who debated, revised, and campaigned for and against the first ten amendments were eighteenth-century Americans. Their world is not ours. The memories they carried were of imperial abuses, the painful renunciation of their English identities, and a long and exhausting war for independence. The excitement they felt and the fears that haunted them were the result of a rare opportunity to create a new nation and to establish it as a republic. If they knew they were making history, they did not know what that history would be.

The men who produced the Bill of Rights were neither demigods nor visionaries. They were mere mortals, some brilliant, some quite ordinary, most of them wealthier and better educated than their neighbors. Almost all of them were veteran politicians, and though most of the issues they grappled with will seem foreign to us today, the tempo and tone of their politics will be familiar. In their wrangling and debating, in their manipulation of procedure to expedite their agenda or derail that of their opponents, in the flare-ups of ego and the indulgence of idiosyncracy, and in the combustible mixture of self-interest, ideals, and principles that propelled them, these men resemble political leaders of every era. But in their burden of serving in a government without precedents and with uncertain legitimacy, in their pressing anxiety that this government might fail, and in their knowledge that America was dwarfed by the great imperial powers across the Atlantic, they are uniquely men of the late eighteenth century.

In 1789, when James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights, the young nation faced a great ideological divide with regard to a question that is being revived today: should broad power and authority reside in the federal government, as the Federalists wished, or should it reside in the state governments, where the Antifederalists insisted it could best protect the people’s liberties? In these early years of the new nation, this ideological struggle was raw and fraught with immediacy, for the Constitution that empowered the national government was new and lacked the traditions that over time lend legitimacy and elicit loyalty. The political decisions the men of this early era made forestalled but did not dissolve the tension between localism and nationalism that was endemic to the federal system they created. That tension would reemerge in the nineteenth century when challenges to federal law and policy led to the Civil War. Even in our lifetime, this issue of where ultimate power should reside remains a Gordian knot.

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. We can appreciate the Bill of Rights only in the context of this struggle. These amendments, conceived by James Madison, one of the most astute Federalists of his day, were intended to weaken, if not crush, the continuing opposition to the new federal government he had been so instrumental in creating. By assuring citizens that the new government would honor and protect their liberties, he hoped to achieve two interlocking goals. The first was to ease the fear of tyranny harbored by many within the general populace and thus separate the Antifederalist followers from their leaders. The second was to preempt the Antifederalists’ plans to pass amendments that would severely restrict the powers of the new government.

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. Even more important to Madison, this explicit guarantee of rights and liberties could play a critical role in protecting minority groups from abuse by the majority. The addition of these amendments was thus a patriotic as well as a political measure, for it was designed to strengthen republican values and to ensure that the American government would honor the people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was the genius of James Madison that he could unite practical considerations and noble aspirations, and join the ideological with the ideal.

All of the rights Madison wished to protect had their roots in the founding generation’s colonial and revolutionary past. They speak to imperial abuses and to hallowed Anglo-American traditions that do not resonate today. Yet the generations that followed added their understandings of these rights just as today we add our own. In this way, the amendments once dismissed as only a “parchment barrier” remains our collective heritage and we remain its guardian for future generations.

About The Author

Photograph © Jerry Speier

Carol Berkin is the Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY, Emerita, where she taught early American and women’s history. Professor Berkin has worked as a consultant on several PBS and History Channel documentaries, including one on the “Scottsboro Boys,” which was nominated for an Academy Award as the best documentary of 2000.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 5, 2015)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476743790

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Raves and Reviews

“Fluidly written and readily accessible, Carol Berkin's account of the genesis and adoption of the Bill of Rights is a must-read for every American seeking to learn the history of this iconic addition to the Constitution. The narrative of ‘rights’ included and omitted gives us much to ponder, even in the 21st century.”

– Mary Beth Norton, Professor, Cornell University, and author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

"Having crafted the definitive volume on the creation of the Constitution in A Brilliant Solution, Carol Berkin here turns her attention to the men who drafted and battled over that document’s first ten amendments. Bristling with vivid insights, packed with colorful tales and personalities, and narrated with her customary verve, The Bill of Rights reaffirms Berkin’s status as one of the most original, vital, and essential historians of the eighteenth century."

– Douglas R. Egerton, author of Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

"Carol Berkin’s brilliant new book demystifies the Bill of Rights.  In crystal-clear prose it demonstrates that James Madison’s shepherding of the first ten amendments through a reluctant Congress was, above all, a successful strategy for preserving the new Constitution, and with it a viable national government.  Every American should read this book.  I’m thinking of sending five copies to the Supreme Court."

– Stuart M. Blumin, Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

“Carol Berkin unravels the story of our Bill of Rights as only she can. Under her pen the founders come to life—vivid and complex—struggling to meet the challenges of their times. Berkin reveals the intricacy, struggle, political infighting, and self-interest at work in the American political process while celebrating the remarkable and enduring accomplishments of these very human American citizens.”

– William E. White, PhD, Vice President of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

"With this concise, wonderfully readable, and masterfully crafted book, Carol Berkin has made the eighteenth-century legislative debates over the Bill of Rights accessible and intelligible to the American public. This book should be required reading in every high school and college civics, history, and social studies classroom in America."

– Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director, The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource)

 "Once again Professor Berkin has given us a beautifully written, insightful history about the intricacies of securing American liberty in her new book The Bill of Rights. Her careful treatment of the political process has produced a profound look into the motives both political and personal of the framers of our government, and the role that each one, especially James Madison, performed in creating and securing American liberty. It is amazing how she has been able to bring to new life a topic that has been so often explored by other historians. Her writing is compelling and clear. The Bill of Rights is a dynamic reexamination of the principal document which is at the foundation of American freedoms."

– George W. Henry, Jr., Professor, University of Utah

"Berkin’s well-crafted and readable narrative focusing on the struggle in Congress over the Bill of Rights in the summer of 1789 should be required reading for those who seek to understand the political divisions among the Founding Fathers and the legacy inherited by future generations. Berkin offers an even-handed account of the forces which supported and opposed a Bill of Rights. She introduces us to intelligent and articulate men such as Roger Sherman, Fisher Ames, and Elbridge Gerry—and the omnipresent James Madison—supplementing the volume with interesting short biographies of the members of Congress."

– John M. Belohlavek, Professor, University of South Florida

“Berkin is a talented writer. . . . A scholarly and readable book that is excellent for history buffs.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

“A highly readable American history lesson that provides a deeper understanding of the Bill of Rights, the fears that generated it and the miracle of the amendments.”

– Kirkus

“This is narrative, celebratory history at its purest.”

– Publishers Weekly

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