On Dec. 15, we celebrate the adoption of the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution, better known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments, ratified in 1791, protect the individual liberties that many in the founding era feared would be weakened under a new constitution. The Bill of Rights includes protections for religious freedom and the freedoms of expression — speech, press, assembly and petition. It also guarantees the right to bear arms, promises a speedy trial by jury, safeguards against unlawful government searches and seizures, and more.
Today, most Americans take these protections for granted, assuming it was inevitable they would be assured in our governmental system. However, the Bill of Rights was only adopted — and the Union created — because political opponents with competing visions for the new country engaged in dialogue and compromise for the sake of the country.
When delegates gathered to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, our fragile new country was on the brink of failure and deeply divided. Among other ills, restless unpaid war veterans called for rebellion, states vied over border disputes and debt from the Revolutionary War threatened economic crisis.
Some newspapers called for states to break from the newly created United States and form regional confederations. Thus the convention delegates knew that without an agreement, the unity proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and gained by victory in the War of Independence would be lost. Delegates met in secret for four months before releasing a new plan of government — the result of intense debate and thoughtful compromise — for approval by the people. The real test for unity began.
During this approval process for the new constitution, opponents with competing visions for the country emerged, debated and finally agreed to unite. Federalists George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison supported a stronger central government proposed under the new constitution. Washington especially felt the frustrations of an impotent Congress that could not tax the states. This structural weakness left his men to suffer through the harsh winters of the war without basic food and clothing. Washington and Hamilton had fought alongside these soldiers from all 13 states, united by the idea of an independent America. Across the states, Federalists shared this vision of national unity, which included a strong central government able to respond to the country’s problems.
In contrast, Anti-federalists were suspicious of centralized power. State leaders Samuel Adams in Massachusetts, Patrick Henry in Virginia and Melancton Smith in New York trusted government closer to the people rather than a distant national body. While their opponents’ vision for the United States favored national unity, Anti-federalists valued diversity and local control. They also feared the implications of the new constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which gave ultimate power to the national government over the states, and were wary of the Necessary and Proper Clause, which would grant vague authority to the national government to do whatever it deemed necessary. Though these elements were alarming, the most agonizing aspect for Anti-federalists was the absence of a bill of rights.
Ratification of the new constitution would ultimately be decided on this issue. Yet as each side warned of the country’s future, they listened to one another to explore where they could align.
Federalists agreed to add a bill of rights if Anti-federalists would support a new federal government under the proposed constitution. The fledgling United States would unite under a strengthened central government after all. Dialogue across political differences was foundational to making a lasting United States.
America today is also deeply divided. A culture of contempt has led us to lose sight of our founding examples of dialogue across political differences. As Washington and Henry braved a country facing failure, we risk our own crisis of a vulnerable country. Can we remain true to competing visions for America while cooperating with fellow citizens to discover where we align and preserve our experiment in liberty?
Anti-federalists and Federalists came together to forge the Union. We should listen to one another to keep it.
Eleesha Tucker is a civic research fellow with the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative in the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University. She teaches the required general education course American Heritage, which aims to inform undergraduate students of our foundational ideals and inspire them to fulfill their civic responsibilities.