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It’s Bill of Rights Day: Take a moment to reflect on our freedoms

When you flip the calendar to the overloaded December calendar, don’t expect to find Dec. 15, 2011, highlighted as Bill of Rights Day. This worthy but understated national holiday was officially declared on Dec.

When you flip the calendar to the overloaded December calendar, don’t expect to find Dec. 15, 2011, highlighted as Bill of Rights Day. This worthy but understated national holiday was officially declared on Dec. 15, 1941, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In remarks prepared in advance of that declaration Roosevelt promised that Americans “will not, under any threat … surrender the guarantee of liberty our forefathers framed for us in our Bill of Rights.”   Because Roosevelt wrote these words just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor the declaration received scant attention then and since.

Seventy years later, with politicians thumping on the Constitution to justify their positions on just about everything, the Bill of Rights enjoys unprecedented immediacy — and deserves public scrutiny and a bit of historical reflection.

Reflection on the roots recalls what led up to the Bill of Rights and its relationship to the Constitution. It is good to re-visit the conflict between the Federalists, who were satisfied with the Constitution per se, and the Anti-Federalists, who saw the need to counter — or hold at bay — too much federal influence.

James Madison, in particular, concluded that the addition of a bill of rights was in the new nation’s best interest. In 1789, he began convincing his fellow members of Congress to support a bill of rights that would highlight some of America’s most important freedoms without undermining the recently ratified Constitution.

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House passed 17 amendments
The documentary record of the first 10 amendments is a fascinating story in its own right. After a summer-long debate, the House sent a list of 17 amendments to the Senate. The Senate approved 12 amendments, which Congress sent to the states for ratification in the fall. After Virginia cast the deciding vote on Dec. 15, 1791, 10 of the 12 amendments became the Bill of Rights we celebrate 220 years later.

Madison is generally credited with having had a heavy hand in crafting the elegant simplicity of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

At the same time, Madison provides his own corollary to that bedrock amendment when he reminds his contemporaries and their descendents that “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Minnesotas contributions
Although the birth of the Bill of Rights long preceded that of the state of Minnesota, Minnesotans have played a significant role in the evolution of cases involving it. Bill of Rights Day 2011 calls for reflection on that history.

Twenty-five years ago, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of passage of the Bill of Rights, Marshall H. Tanick published a significant article on just that topic in Minnesota History. Tanick reviewed the legendary Near v Minnesota case, then dug deep into Minnesotans’ contributions to the evolution of the Bill of Rights.

A prevailing theme in the court cases covered by Tanick is the reality that, for Minnesotans, the First Amendment is first among equals, the right most challenged and most cited as a defense. That fact prevails as challenges to freedom of speech and the press, open government, media ownership, privacy, social media and a host of related issues rise to the top of the public agenda. 

Dec. 15 deserves a reminder on every Minnesotan’s personal calendar to take time to consider the inalienable, if implicit, rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights so often cited, so little understood, and so under-feted on national Bill of Rights Day. 

Mary Treacy writes about open government, Northeast Minneapolis, and whatever else seems important on her blog, Poking Around with Mary. A version of this commentary also appeared on Minnesota 2020’s Hindsight Blog.