Written by Doug Anstaett Tuesday, 13 December 2011 16:37
Last week, our nation marked the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and our nation’s entry into the Second World War.
That was a truly significant date, of course. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling Dec. 7, 1941 a “date which will live in infamy.” It certainly has.
But there’s another significant date in December that is even more important in the history of our nation, yet it often receives little fanfare. In fact, it has become such an accepted part of the nation’s cultural fabric that we often take it for granted.
Thursday marks the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Eleven score ago, on Dec. 15, 1791, our fledgling nation added the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. As a nation, we stated emphatically that the individual rights of Americans had to be spelled out in our most important document.
So, who led the charge and to whom do we owe a debt of gratitude?
It’s not necessarily who you might think, although many of our Founding Fathers from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to John Adams and James Madison helped make it happen.
So, who was that masked man? Whom do we credit with making it happen?
It was Virginia’s George Mason.
Mason was a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who had decided not to support the new document because it didn’t include a list of the individual rights of citizens.
Today, we exercise our freedom of speech, freedom of religion and right to assemble with gusto. Whether it’s the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street protestors, a Shawnee Mission student tweeter or, yes, even the Westboro Baptist Church placard carriers, we know our rights—and we exercise them.
Those rights, along with many others, shout to the world that we Americans aren’t afraid of freedom. We believe in it so much that we’re willing to tolerate just about any message short of shouting fire in a crowded theater.
So, what inspired George Mason? At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Mason helped draft a “Declaration of Rights” for his home state of Virginia. Mason wanted the same for the new republic, charging it would be illegitimate unless it listed those inalienable rights.
He played a critical role in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but his proposal for a bill of rights fashioned after Virginia’s was defeated. At the first session of the first Congress, future president James Madison, an elected representative from Virginia, introduced a Bill of Rights that reflected Mason’s ideas.
Besides the rights already mentioned above, the document also guaranteed a right to a trial by jury and the right to bear arms, outlawed excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment and protected citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, among others.
If you “Google” the term Founding Fathers, Mason’s name likely won’t be listed in the top 10 or 20. But when you hear his story, you come to realize his dogged determination had as much to do with our freedoms today as the individual accomplishments of any other.
Two hundred twenty years later, those freedoms still ring.
So, say a word of thanks today to the father of the Bill of Rights, George Mason.
Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association in Topeka.