P R E F A C E
The Bill of Rights as Beacon
In the summer of 1787, delegates from 13 new American states, recently British colonies, met in Philadelphia to write a constitution for a unified nation. By September, they had produced a document that then began to circulate among the state legislatures for ratification. The new constitution provided a blueprint for how the national government would function, but it did not contain a section specifically outlining the rights of individual citizens. A public debate quickly arose. Advocates of the draft constitution argued that guarantees of individual rights were not needed. Others, however, aware of the explicit rights guaranteed in earlier documents such as the British Bill of Rights (1689) and the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, believed that some specific provision stating the rights of individuals was necessary.
At the height of the debate, in December 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as ambassador to France, wrote a letter to his friend James Madison, one of the chief authors of the new constitution. "A bill of rights," Jefferson wrote, "is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference."
Jefferson's position gained advocates, and a compromise was reached. State legislatures agreed to ratify the draft document with the understanding that the first national legislature meeting under the new constitution would pass amendments guaranteeing individual liberties. That is precisely what occurred. By 1791, these 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, had become part of the supreme law of the land.
Much about this controversy at the very beginning of the American experiment in democracy prefigures later developments in U.S. politics and constitutional law. Intense views on both sides were moderated by a complicated, yet highly pragmatic compromise. Also significant is that Jefferson saw explicit limits on government power as a necessity. In fact, the Bill of Rights can be read as the definitive statement of that most American of values: the idea that the individual is prior to and takes precedence over any government.
As the title "The Rights of the People: Individual Freedom and the Bill of Rights" suggests, this book is our effort to explain how the core concepts of individual liberty and individual rights have evolved under the U.S. legal system down the present day.
It is intended for a great variety of readers. One obvious use is in secondary school or university classrooms. To that end, we are creating an on-line Discussion Guide with accompanying questions and background references. Please look for it on the World Wide Web at: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/
A non-American reader may well ask, "But what does all this have to do with me? In my country we have a different legal tradition and there is no bill of rights."
It is true that the U.S. Bill of Rights is the historical product of a particular time and place. It arose out a long British tradition of enumerated rights within the British legal system that governed the American colonies. Some would say it has unique application to the circumstances of the United States.
Yet many others believe that the American Bill of Rights has transcended its historical roots. The concept of individual rights can be seen as one of the building blocks in any civil society. And in many times and many places, the Bill of Rights has served as beacon to those living under tyrants.
Consider the post-1989 revolutions that ended Communist control of Eastern Europe. Looking back on these events, Adam Michnik, the Polish journalist and Solidarity leader, posed the question of which revolution has been a greater inspiration for modern Europeans the French Revolution or the American Revolution. His answer is unequivocal.
"The American Revolution," says Michnik, "appears to embody simply an idea of freedom without utopia. Following Thomas Paine, it is based on the natural right of the people to determine their own fate. It consciously relinquishes the notion of a perfect, conflict-free society in favor of one based on equal opportunity, equality before the law, religious freedom, and the rule of law."