While noble in making the federal government mostly harmless, the Articles of Confederation (the country’s first governing document) approved only one legislative chamber, relied on voluntary tax support, and had no common currency or central military, among other issues. To effectively run a country consisting of independent states, there needed to be some common procedure. As more and more states became interested in amending the Articles, a meeting was set in Philadelphia, PA on May 25, 1787. It was quickly agreed that simple changes would not work. Instead, the entire document needed to be replaced. This meeting became the Constitutional Convention.

The first draft set up a system of checks and balances that included an executive branch, a representative legislature, and a federal judiciary. The document was remarkable, but deeply flawed. The main issue being that it did not include a specific declaration of individual rights. It specified what the government could do but did not say what it could not do. The absence of a “bill of rights” turned out to be an obstacle for ratification by the states. It would take four more years of intense debate before the new government’s form would be resolved.

Recently freed from a monarchy, the American people wanted guarantees that the new government would not trample upon their newly won freedoms of speech and religion, nor upon their right from warrantless searches and seizures. So, the Constitution’s framers heeded Thomas Jefferson who argued, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to… and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” In 1791 the United States Bill of Rights became the Constitution’s first ten amendments and the law of the land.

This said, it must be noted that it, no matter the language, did not include everyone. For instance, women and property-less men were second-class citizens, unable even to vote. Native Americans were entirely outside the constitutional system and governed by treaties. Slavery was legal and the slaves had no access to the rule of law. But, as the preamble to the Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…” The key words here are, “in order to form a more perfect union.”

The US will never be perfect, but we must always strive to be, and we have made great progress in doing so. Jefferson once wrote to Lafayette, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.” He was correct, but through civil rights, innovation, individualism, and economic liberalism, this American experiment has prevailed. We have become an example to other nations and are the “shining city upon a hill” – and we will continue this course. Additional amendments were later added to extend its protection of rights to all people, regardless of race or gender, and to keep state and local governments from violating the people’s rights. The Bill of Rights is the perfect example of believing in your fellow man.

This Bill of Rights Day, we should be grateful and celebrate our basic liberties reiterated in the text of the same name. It has proven to be one of the most influential documents in contemporary history, codifying the theory of natural rights, which holds that humans are granted certain liberties by God, God alone, and that no one should have the power to infringe them.