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The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties


The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties

The citizens of America love and revere the Bill of Rights, but their ardor is tempered by several ironies. While most citizens express their respect for the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, they are often unaware how those amendments came to be part of the document. Perhaps more troubling is the ultimate irony that many of the professed believers in the Bill of Rights are unfamiliar with the specific provisions and their meaning. This leads to the final paradox of “love” for the Bill of Rights. If the document was put to a vote in America today, it is extremely unlikely that it would garner the approval of a majority of our citizens. Americans want the protection of the Bill of Rights for themselves but not necessarily for others.

THE BILL OF RIGHTS is a concise and vivid history of how the bedrock principles of our Constitution came to be part of the document. Historian Carol Berkin has chosen not to write a detailed discussion of the specific amendments and their provisions. Instead, she focuses on the political strategy executed by the founding fathers to preserve the Constitution as a political document, creating a federal government that would exercise authority over the individual states that struggled to become a nation under the provisions of its original founding document, the Articles of Confederation.

"THE BILL OF RIGHTS is informative history that makes the debate surrounding the creation of the Bill of Rights easily readable."

The Articles of Confederation, America’s first Constitution, was formally ratified in 1781. But within a few years, the document and its governing provisions were proven inadequate. The separate colonies struggled to pay national debts, defend the borders of their young nation, and establish any viable commerce and trade with foreign nations. The 54 delegates who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 agreed that something had to be done to save their country. Their original goal was to propose amendments to strengthen the Articles. But that proved to be unworkable. So James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and others went further, abandoning what they saw as a faulty government and creating a new one.

However, the opponents of the new Constitution demanded protection against a too powerful federal government. Their first goal was to defeat the Constitution itself. Securing the people’s liberties was one stated goal that opponents of the new Constitution sought. But their true objective was to maintain the supremacy of the states over the proposed federal government.

Berkin portrays Madison as a brilliant political tactician who used the Bill of Rights to defeat those opposed to the Constitution even after its initial ratification. Opponents of a strong federal government had many reasons for their opposition. Some believed that the states should remain sovereign, while others were worried about the possible tyranny of federal government leaders. Madison believed that a strong statement recognizing the rights of the people would calm popular fears, even though the new federal government lacked any power to enforce those rights. He eventually won the struggle, and the new nation was formed.

THE BILL OF RIGHTS is informative history that makes the debate surrounding the creation of the Bill of Rights easily readable. Berkin also includes an interesting addendum to the book --- biographies of all the members of the First Federal Congress who enacted the Bill of Rights. Of course, they were all men, but in many ways their experiences and background are no different from contemporary politicians. Perhaps that is why, even today, many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights are still debated in political venues across the land in the same manner as in 1789. The document that serves as the foundation for America’s freedoms has come a long way, but there is still room for substantial debate around its meaning.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 15, 2015

The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties
by Carol Berkin

  • Publication Date: May 24, 2016
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476743800
  • ISBN-13: 9781476743806