Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bill of Rights Day

Today is Bill of Rights Day, which is interesting in itself. The 1791 Bill of Rights, covering the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, has not always been a thing; they were not originally called the Bill of Rights, and not even usually regarded as a unit. Only after the Civil War did the term even occasionally get used, and then it was almost always a rhetorical tactic to support some very controversial political position -- that the amendments should be applied to the States as a special account of equal protection of law, or that the American acquisition of the Philippines was not the collapse of the Republic into an empire but could be a legitimate enterprise (because it was restrained by some of the rights listed in the amendments).

This all changed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt's New Deal raised major concerns about expansion of federal power and loss of individual freedoms. (It is interesting to note, incidentally, that every stage in the history of the Bill of Rights becoming a part of American culture indicates a major expansion of federal power beyond its prior limits; and it is perhaps worth thinking about why that might be the case. The history of this is summarized in a very nice article by Gerard Magliocca, which has saved me from many potential errors in this summary: The Bill of Rights as a Term of Art.) In response, Roosevelt began appealing to the Bill of Rights as the safeguard of liberty that the welfare state could not possibly infringe. Still a rhetorical tactic in a game of political controversy, but it set things up for the next step. Beginning in 1939, Roosevelt began contrasting the American society, based on the Bill of Rights, with the societies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Thus, when in 1941 the amendments hit their 150th anniversary, Roosevelt established Bill of Rights Day, which happened to fall eight days after Pearl Harbor. And the first Bill of Rights Day was celebrated with the most successful radio program in history, Norman Corwin's "We Hold These Truths", listened to with all the passion of patriotic war fervor by literally half the population of the United States. From that point on, the Bill of Rights became a central monument of the American Way of Life.

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