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Remembering the Bill of Rights


Why exhibit the Bill of Rights?

What could be more appropriate? This original document embodies our highest aspirations for ourselves and our country. This is the very copy that Congress sent to Virginia for ratification in 1789. When the General Assembly approved 10 amendments in December 1791, the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights define our nation and our form of government. They guarantee the preservation of our individual liberties. It is our liberties that make the United States special in the world's history. It is our liberties that we fight for when we go to war and that we treasure when we are at peace.

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution, together with the Declaration of Independence, are for American liberty what the Bible and the Quran and other sacred texts are for religion: They are the fundamental statements of our most basic rights. We read them again and again to remind ourselves of what we stand for.

The Bill of Rights has roots deep in Virginia's history. In fact, Virginians took the first and the last steps in the creation of the Bill of Rights.

The American Revolution made fundamental changes in the relationship between the citizens and their government. At the very beginning, nearly a month before the Declaration of Independence, Virginia adopted its Declaration of Rights, specifying certain essential liberties of the people that the government must protect and not endanger. The Virginia Declaration of Rights inspired other states to add similar statements of fundamental rights to their constitutions.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created a strong national government for the United States, but many Americans, including Virginians like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, knew that a strong government could be a dangerous government and insisted that a bill of rights be added to the Constitution to secure fundamental liberties. Persuaded that they were correct, Virginian James Madison sponsored the Bill of Rights in 1789 and pushed it through Congress.

The Virginia General Assembly completed the ratification process Dec. 15, 1791, and the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution.

Individual liberty, which the Bill of Rights requires the government to protect, helped make the United States special. We were among the first people in the world to enjoy full freedom of religion, a principle embodied in the First Amendment and derived in part from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

We enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press and have a right to complain directly to the government. We forget how unusual that was at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted and how unusual it still is today in some places, where disagreement with government policy is regarded as treason rather than as a right of free people.

We are protected in our persons and properties against arbitrary searches and seizures, and against imprisonment or punishment unless convicted in a fair trial and by a jury of our fellow citizens. We are guaranteed the means to defend ourselves against political persecution.

Our rights as citizens and as human beings are not limited by the listing in the Bill of Rights, as the Ninth and 10th amendments clearly state. American liberty should always have a privileged status under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

It is true that the United States has not always lived up to this promise. Much of our history has been a struggle against foreign powers or against our own weaknesses to fulfill those promises for all citizens. To the extent that we have not fully succeeded, we have much work yet to do.

Still, we have succeeded to a remarkable degree. The rights and principles of the Bill of Rights are our guideposts as we strive to realize them as goals.

They are why the United States has never had to build walls to keep its people in. Even today, when the nation is under attack from its enemies, more people from more nations in the world than ever before are coming to the United States to share in the dream of freedom. The Bill of Rights is one reason why.

It represents the American dream more fully than any song, any flag, any other words or symbols. These rights are our most precious possession. "The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment," Thomas Jefferson said in 1801. "They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road, which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety." S

Brent Tarter is assistant director of the division of publications and educational services for The Library of Virginia.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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