Incomparable Gifts In The Bill Of Rights

WASHINGTON - When James Madison in 1789 brought before the House of Representatives the proposed amendments to the Constitution that we call the Bill of Rights, he was not greeted with accolades.

As Irving Brant reminds us in his great biography of Madison, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts told his fellow congressmen that Madison "has hunted up all the grievances and complaints of newspapers . . . and the small talk of their debates," and made them the tools of his own ambition.

Ames' cynical view was that passing the amendments "may do some good towards quieting men who attend to sounds only, and may get the mover some popularity, which he wishes." But it wouldn't help the country or the Constitution, he said.

The House was in no hurry to act, delaying while it worked on more important matters, such as a proposal to raise its own pay to $6 a day. Only with some difficulty, as the session drew to a close, was Madison able to overcome the foot-dragging and opposition.

He needed to get the amendments passed as a matter of practical politics. Seeking election in 1788 immediately after he had opposed Patrick Henry's demand that a Bill of Rights be included in the Constitution before Virginia ratified it, Madison promised his constituents that the guarantees of freedom they wanted would be forthcoming.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights today, it is worth remembering that the charter of liberty came out of the same kind of messy political process and the same kind of balky Congress that we know very well.

It was not handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai but was crafted by politicians who, fortunately, had an exceptionally clear grasp on the tendency of government to shackle individual freedoms. They knew that the Republic they had created, resting on popular majorities, was not immune from this danger.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution include some of the clearest, leanest prose ever embedded in a legal document and some of the simplest and least equivocal directives and prohibitions ever framed.

They start with the sweeping First Amendment freedoms we all learned in school: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

No other 45 words in the English language have brought so much spiritual, intellectual and material benefit to a people as these few phrases. They are the envy of the oppressed in every land. When Andrei Sakharov wrote a draft constitution for a new Soviet Union he envisaged in the last years of his life, he borrowed from the language of the First Amendment.

The same economy and force of words mark every one of the other amendments, including the too-often-neglected 10th Amendment, which says that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

By joining the guarantee of individual freedom to this proclamation of federalism, Madison and his friends gave the United States an incomparable gift. How much would the battered Yugoslavs or the enslaved Chinese or the struggling South Africans give for such a national charter?

The point will be made, of course, that these rights are not entirely secure even now in our own nation. True enough.

A furor arose - and then, happily, died - when the Supreme Court held that flag-burning was protected First Amendment speech. Another battle has been joined over its ruling that the same amendment was not violated by restrictions on abortion counseling in government-funded family planning clinics.

These debates are not only necessary but healthy. Each generation must discover for itself the values embodied in the Bill of Rights. Liberty is a muscle that needs to be exercised - and exercised in combat against real threats, not just against meek protests.

It is strengthened, not damaged, by such struggles. They teach us to fear our own absolutism.

As Alan Barth, the late, great civil-liberties editorialist of The Washington Post, wrote almost 30 years ago:

"The Constitution is a limitation not alone upon the government. It is a limitation on the people, on us. Sometimes it keeps us from doing what we would like to do. That is the purpose of a Constitution. That is the essential meaning of limited government. That is the indispensable condition of a government of laws."

Barth understood the great paradox. The Bill of Rights will protect our liberties only as long as we are willing to exercise self-restraint.

"Free men can never rely upon courts alone for the preservation of their freedom," he wrote. "Courts can give warning of danger. But they are really powerless to protect us from ourselves. They can remind us of our heritage. But they cannot preserve that heritage for us."

The Bill of Rights will live only as long as it can summon us to battle, once again, against its foes.

David S. Broder's column appears Wednesday and Sunday on The Times' editorial page. (Copyright, Washington Post Writers Group)