National Affairs: “Madison’s Consistency on the Bill of Rights”
By Michael P. Zuckert
Faculty partner Michael Zuckert has written an article for National Affairs on James Madison and his view of the Bill of Rights:
Polls of the American people regularly show that the most valued and admired part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights. Given that fact, it may seem strange that these treasured amendments almost did not make it into our governing document. Yet on September 17, 1787, when the delegates signed the Constitution, the draft contained no bill of rights.
Why this was so has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that the delegates simply ran out of time. In fact, a few days before they were set to adjourn, one delegate pointed out that they had forgotten to add a bill of rights. But when put to a vote, the idea of staying on to prepare one lost by a vote of 10 states to zero.
To be fair, the delegates had been working since May, through a stifling Philadelphia summer, with the windows of Independence Hall boarded up so that passersby couldn’t eavesdrop on their proceedings. (When we think back to their accomplishments, we really should appreciate just how much they sweated — both figuratively and literally — on behalf of their countrymen.) By that point, let’s just say the delegates were eager to go home and bathe.
But during the efforts to win approval of the Constitution, the state ratifying conventions raised the absence of a bill of rights as a major concern. Many supporters of the Constitution feared this agitation would sabotage their efforts, either directly by leading to a vote against the ratification or indirectly by requiring a new convention that might deadlock over the terms of the amendments. So they worked out a compromise in which the state conventions would ratify the Constitution as written but submit proposals for amendments to be considered promptly once the new government came into being…
Michael P. Zuckert is the Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science, Emeritus. He has published extensively in both Political Theory and Constitutional Studies. His books include Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, the Natural Rights Republic, Launching Liberalism, and (with Catherine Zuckert) The Truth About Leo Strauss and Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, in addition to many articles. He has also edited The Spirit of Religion & the Spirit of Liberty and (with Derek Webb) The Antifederal Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle. He is completing Natural rights and the New Constitutionalism, a study of American constitutionalism in a theoretical context. Professor Zuckert taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Political Philosophy and Theory, American Political Thought, American Constitutional Law, American Constitutional History, Constitutional Theory, and Philosophy of Law. His advising specialties were graduate programs in political science. He is a 2019 Visiting Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership. He co-authored and co-produced a public radio series, Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson: A Nine Part Drama for the Radio. He was also senior scholar for Liberty! (1997), a six-hour public television series on the American Revolution and served as senior advisor on the PBS series on Ben Franklin (2002) and Alexander Hamilton (2007).
Professor Zuckert is a JMC faculty partner.
National Affairs is a quarterly journal of essays about domestic policy, political economy, society, culture, and political thought. It aims to help Americans think more clearly about public life and rise more ably to the challenge of self-government.
The journal makes its home at the American Enterprise Institute, and draws upon an array of authors from a range of backgrounds and points of view. Contributors include academics, journalists, policy experts, and political practitioners. Each issue features lively yet serious essays on the range of domestic issues: from economics and health care to education and welfare; from the legal debates of the day to enduring dilemmas of society and culture. National Affairs aims to devote special attention to the deeper theoretical questions of American self-government—seeking to cut through the conventional wisdom, make sense of complex issues, offer concrete proposals, and illuminate the ideas that move American politics.
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