A New Nation Conceived: the call for a constitutional convention (New Government Conceived Book 1)

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One of them was the Virginian George Mason. Because the Constitution created a federal government he felt might be too powerful, and because it did not end the slave trade and did not contain a bill of rights, he withheld his support from the document he had played so large a role in crafting. In , Mason, then 51, had been appointed to a committee charged with drafting a "Declaration of Rights" for Virginia.

From the writings of English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke , Mason had come to a then-radical insight: that a republic had to begin with the formal, legally binding commitment that individuals had inalienable rights that were superior to any government. One other committee member did play a significant role: Mason's young friend James Madison, who kept his and Mason's friend Thomas Jefferson apprised of Mason's progress in drafting the declaration. Mason's work began, "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights Declaration of Independence included the immortal words of what may be the most famous political statement in history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In , toward the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Mason proposed that a bill of rights preface the Constitution, but his proposal was defeated. When he refused to sign the new Constitution, his decision baffled some and alienated others, including his old friend, George Washington. Mason's stand nonetheless had its effect. Subscribe or Give a Gift. Sign up. SmartNews History. History Archaeology. World History. Science Age of Humans. Future of Space Exploration. Human Behavior.

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But Article V itself says nothing about limiting the scope of a convention. Indeed, it says nothing about many issues which, were a convention to be called under its auspices, would become contested: who would attend; whether it would be open to states that had not called for it; what limits might be placed on its delegates; by what majority an amendment would need to pass to be proposed; and so on.

But fun as they were to debate, the recommendations from the pow-wow in Phoenix have no formal standing. Nor do the rules that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in for the convention on the balanced-budget amendment then being proposed, which would have seen the senior senator of the majority party and the Speaker of the House preside over the convention, and required a three-fifths vote of delegates to establish rules of procedure.

But if the convention ignores such strictures, there might be no way to enforce them. Once a convention was under way, its procedures would almost certainly be immune to judicial review. The precedent is that strong. Those changes still need to be ratified by 38 states—which proponents of a convention say offers a crucial check on anyone doing anything they do not approve of. But the logic of a convention might argue against such purity.

The delegates, expecting the support of the solidly Republican state legislatures that had called the convention, would know they needed some split legislatures for ratification. Would they really be above crafting their amendment so as to contain something enticing to the other side?

There is also the possibility that Congress could choose ratification by means of state conventions. This is a constitutionally approved alternative to ratification by state legislatures, which has so far been used only once—for the amendment that repealed the prohibition of alcohol. In that case many states determined the make-up of their convention by a popular vote which in effect became a referendum on the amendment. As a balanced-budget amendment might, in some states, be more popular with the public than with legislators, it might be more easily ratified by this unusual route.

There is also a long game to be played. The states do not have to ratify the amendment all at once, or in a rush. The 27th amendment, which prevents members of Congress from raising their salaries, was proposed in ; it did not get its 38th ratification until As Mason intended, the federal government would have no way to block the process. Though some states might in time try to rescind their initial ratifications, this would be another area where the constitution is mum and the courts will not venture. And then there is, as there always seems to be, a nuclear option.

John Adams

Delegates could simply declare a new, lower threshold for ratification. Uniquely in matters concerning Article V conventions, there is actually some precedent for this. The Articles of Confederation, signed in and ratified by all 13 original states in , required the unanimous consent of all states for any changes. The constitutional convention of ignored this, deciding that ratification by nine of them would be sufficient for their document to replace the articles.

Unless Article V is amended first, a convention would have no constitutional power to change the ratification rules itself. But delegates still might try. We really believe that any Article V convention would have the ability to change the ratification process. If it were carefully drafted, it might conceivably do a modicum of good. Whether that would be worth the risks of triggering an untested and remarkably poorly constrained constitutional mechanism with huge potential power, though, is another matter.

Correction September 29th : An earlier version of this story said that the full Senate passed a bill in laying out rules for an Article V convention. In fact the bill only passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, in Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today.

Early Years

Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? As members of the Continental Congress contemplated independence in May and June of , many colonies were dissolving their charters with England. As the actual vote on independence approached, a few colonies were issuing their own declarations of independence and bills of rights.

When Jefferson wrote his famous preamble, he was restating, in more eloquent language, the philosophy of natural rights expressed in the Virginia Declaration that the Founders embraced. The Declaration of Independence was a propaganda document rather than a legal one. It was an advertisement about why the colonists were breaking away from England. What is the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?


In the years between and , most of the 13 states drafted constitutions that contained a declaration of rights within the body of the document or as a separate provision at the beginning, many of them listing the same natural rights that Jefferson had embraced in the Declaration. When it came time to form a central government in , the Continental Congress began to create a weak union governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation was sent to the states for ratification in ; it was formally adopted in But the Articles of Confederation proved too weak for bringing together a fledgling nation that needed both to wage war and to manage the economy.

As a result, Madison and others gathered in Philadelphia in with the goal of creating a stronger, but still limited, federal government. After four months of debate, the delegates produced a constitution.

The Supreme Court Is One Vote Away from Changing How the U.S. Is Governed

During the final days of debate, delegates George Mason and Elbridge Gerry objected that the Constitution, too, should include a bill of rights to protect the fundamental liberties of the people against the newly empowered president and Congress. Their motion was swiftly—and unanimously—defeated; a debate over what rights to include could go on for weeks, and the delegates were tired and wanted to go home.

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The Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention and sent to the states for ratification without a bill of rights. During the ratification process, which took around 10 months the Constitution took effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify in late June ; the 13th state, Rhode Island, would not join the union until May , many state ratifying conventions proposed amendments specifying the rights that Jefferson had recognized in the Declaration and that they protected in their own state constitutions.

James Madison and other supporters of the Constitution initially resisted the need for a bill of rights as either unnecessary because the federal government was granted no power to abridge individual liberty or dangerous since it implied that the federal government had the power to infringe liberty in the first place. In the face of a groundswell of popular demand for a bill of rights, Madison changed his mind and introduced a bill of rights in Congress on June 8, Congress approved 12 amendments to be sent to the states for ratification.

This wise Virginian was a friend to four future presidents, yet he refused to sign the Constitution

Only 10 of the amendments were ultimately ratified in and became the Bill of Rights. The first of the two amendments that failed was intended to guarantee small congressional districts to ensure that representatives remained close to the people. The other would have prohibited senators and representatives from giving themselves a pay raise unless it went into effect at the start of the next Congress.

This latter amendment was finally ratified in and became the 27th Amendment. But the protections in the Bill of Rights—forbidding Congress from abridging free speech, for example, or conducting unreasonable searches and seizures—were largely ignored by the courts for the first years after the Bill of Rights was ratified in Like the preamble to the Declaration, the Bill of Rights was largely a promissory note.

The Bill of Rights became a document that defends not only majorities of the people against an overreaching federal government but also minorities against overreaching state governments. Today, there are debates over whether the federal government has become too powerful in threatening fundamental liberties. There are also debates about how to protect the least powerful in society against the tyranny of local majorities.

What do we know about the documentary history of the rare copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights on display at the National Constitution Center? Generally, when people think about the original Declaration, they are referring to the official engrossed —or final—copy now in the National Archives. That is the one that John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and most of the other members of the Second Continental Congress signed, state by state, on August 2, John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, published the official printing of the Declaration ordered by Congress, known as the Dunlap Broadside, on the night of July 4th and the morning of July 5th.

About copies are believed to have been printed.