Rights of the People

THE Bicentennial celebration of America's great founding events, which began on July 4, 1976, culminates this year, the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Formally, the Bill of Rights comprises the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified by the requisite number of states on Dec. 15, 1791. But a full understanding of the scope of constitutional rights in American law must embrace provisions in the original Constitution (such as the right to a jury trial in criminal cases in Article III), and later additions to the charter, notably the 14th Amendment clauses protecting citizens' rights from encroachments by states, as well as by the fed eral government. It's really the concept of individual rights embedded throughout the Constitution we honor this year.

The Bill of Rights, like its mother charter, was born in controversy. During the drafting and ratification debates on the Constitution, Federalists such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton opposed a bill of rights as unnecessary. They contended that individual rights were adequately safeguarded in the structure of the Constitution, with its separation of authority and its limited grant of enumerated powers to the federal government.

But the clamor for a bill of rights (which had numerous English and colonial precedents) was strong in the states. The Federalists doubted that the Constitution would be ratified unless they conceded that the new Congress would, as one of its first acts, draw up a charter of rights.

Ironically, the draftsman of the Bill of Rights was the industrious Madison, who culled the essence from 200 proposals submitted by the states. From these often lengthy models, he produced the terse amendments that have an almost Biblical elegance.

For 150 years the Bill of Rights was largely ignored in US jurisprudence. Then, in the mid-20th century came a Big Bang in Bill of Rights litigation. Americans' rediscovery of the Bill coincided with a major assertion of government power in the wake of the New Deal - power Madison could never have foreseen - and it was aided by Supreme Court decisions ``incorporating'' the Bill against actions by the states.

Today, the Bill of Rights is central not only to American law, but also to Americans' sense of themselves as a people and a nation.

First in a series of occasional editorials on the Bill of Rights.

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