The Capitol Dome

Summer 2016

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 27 of 55

26 THE CAPITOL DOME NAZI GERMANY, THE NEW dEAL, AND THE iCONIZATION OF THE FEDERAL BILL OF rIGHTS by Kenneth Bowling December 15, 2016, marked the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. Although it shares the same wording, the iconic document called the federal Bill of Rights enshrined in the imposing rotunda of the National Archives is actually much younger. Like the building in which it resides it is a creation of the New Deal. Despite all the discussion about the need for a Bill of Rights during the debate over ratification of the Constitu- tion and during the first federal election, the Amendments to the Constitution debated and adopted by the First Federal Congress and transmitted to the states for possible ratifica- tion were not referred to as the Bill of Rights. 1 After the rati- fication of ten of the twelve over the course of the next two years, and throughout the nineteenth century, during which Americans basically forgot their existence, they were gener- ally known as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution if they were referred to at all. 2 One such rare mention is note- worthy. In May 1897 a newspaper reporter ventured into an office in Indianapolis. On the wall he noticed a large, beauti- fully handwritten manuscript signed by John Adams, presi- dent of the United States Senate, and Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, Speaker of the House of Representatives. The occupant of the office told the reporter that he had purchased it for five dollars in 1866 from a Union soldier who had dis- covered it in North Carolina's magnificent Greek Revival capitol when he had visited Raleigh with General William T. Sherman a year earlier. The resulting Indianapolis News ar- ticle reported that there then existed in the city North Caro- lina's copy of "the twelve amendments to the constitution" proposed to the states in 1789. 3 In arguing against James Madison's belief about the inef- fectiveness of paper bills of rights, Thomas Jefferson pre- sciently commented on "the legal check which it puts into the hands of the judiciary." 4 At the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Supreme Court of the United States strug- gled for a decade over the question of whether its provisions extended to the territories acquired from Spain—"does the Constitution follow the flag?" 5 —politically conscious Amer- icans discovered Jefferson's "legal check" as well. Between 1900 and 1930 the term "First Ten Amendments" gradually gave way to "Bill of Rights and "federal Bill of Rights." The latter terms appear in letters to the editor, in historical and constitutional analyses, in political party discourse, and in various public policy debates reported by the New York Times. 6

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Capitol Dome - Summer 2016