On this date in 1791, the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, was ratified by the required three-fourths of the original 13 states. Happy 220th Birthday!
As you may recall from your high school history class, the Bill of Rights was written to alleviate concerns felt by many that the new United States Constitution did too little to ensure individual rights would be protected by the national government that document created. As originally proposed, the Constitution only defined the powers of the national government. It did nothing to define the rights of its citizens. The Bill of Rights would fill that gap.
The Bill of Rights was largely based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights from 1776, written by George Mason, one of my favorite Founding Fathers. Mason’s document did more than inspire the Bill of Rights. Some of the language of the Declaration of Independence is copied nearly verbatim from it. Of course, Mason was not entirely original, either, having borrowed much from John Locke, and using the English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta for inspiration as well.
Regardless of its provenance, the United States likely would have developed much differently than it did were it not for the Bill of Rights. Those first 10 amendments are central to our identity as free Americans. The Bill of Rights is often described as a “living document,” meaning the interpretation of those rights has changed through the years to reflect not just the era in which they were defined, but to address contemporary issues that could never have been foreseen by the Founding Fathers. The struggle to ensure the rights granted to us by the first 10 amendments is ongoing. Often we seem take a few steps backwards, and new diligence is required to get us back on track. If we look at history, however, it seems to this writer, at least, that we have moved forward more often than backward. I guess that makes me a bit of an optimist as far as individual rights are concerned.
There were originally 12 amendments passed by the first Congress and sent to the states for their consideration, not just the 10 that were eventually approved and became the Bill of Rights. One that did not pass concerned compensation for members of Congress. If members of Congress voted to give themselves a pay raise, it would not go into effect until after the next election. Basically, whenever a Congressman voted to increase his pay, his constituents would have the opportunity to judge whether or not the increase was warranted before the Congressman could receive the higher salary. If constituents felt the increased pay was not earned, they could vote their Congressman out of office, and he would never see a penny of it.
In 1982, an undergraduate student at the University of Texas named Gregory Watson discovered this failed amendment while working on a research paper for his government class. Watson discovered that several states had passed the amendment and it was still floating around out there, largely forgotten. There was no statute of limitations on it, which meant that it could still be approved if enough states voted to ratify it. His research paper suggested the amendment was still in play and could yet be passed. In addition, Watson argued that the amendment should be ratified since delaying pay raises until after an election would help to prevent corruption.
During the rest of the 1980’s, Gregory Watson waged a personal campaign in support of this 18th century relic. He began writing to legislators around the nation, and he convinced many of them to bring it back to life. Ten years after he wrote his paper, and 200 years after it was proposed, Alabama became the 38th state to approve the amendment, which meant it had the approval of ¾ of the states. With Alabama’s vote, the Congressional Pay Amendment was ratified and became the 27th amendment to the Constitution.
The story of Gregory Watson and the 27th amendment gives me hope that we Americans are not entirely jaded or apathetic about our government and our individual rights. I think George Mason would be gratified.