On December 15, 1791, the legislature of the state of Virginia ratified all ten amendments to the Constitution, making the Bill of Rights the law of the land, and completing our country’s founding document.
It had been over a quarter of a century since the Declaration of Independence had been signed on July 4, 1776 by members of the Continental Congress. Now, after a bloody war and many fits and starts, the complete covenant that bound the now fourteen states into a new republic had been sealed.
It had also been more than four years since Benjamin Franklin, stepping out of the final day of the Constitutional Convention, told Mrs. Powel the delegates had given the citizens of the fledgling United States, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” All four years had been necessary to fulfill the promise made to the Anti-Federalists in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina during the ratification conventions in those states that in return for ratifying the Constitution, the first order of business in the new republic would be the passage of the Bill of Rights.
Thanks largely to James Madison, and the integrity of all those leaders who sided with the Federalists, that promise was fulfilled. While it is interesting to speculate on whether then new republic would have lasted had that promise not been fulfilled, such speculation, thankfully, remains just that.
In the subsequent two centuries plus, we’ve added seventeen additional amendments to the Constitution.
The next edition of The Tennessee Star’s Guide to the Constitution for Secondary School Students, which will be available for free to all Tennessee secondary schools and students participating in the Polk Foundation’s Constitution Project in the spring of 2018, will describe why those amendments were passed, and the impact they have had on our republic.
The good news that we could tell Mr. Franklin and Ms. Powel should they by some mysterious act return to our day and time to check up on America is this: we have kept the republic–so far.
But as Franklin’s comments suggests, and President Ronald Reagan reminded us, “we are but one generation away from losing freedom forever.”
Though some may argue that the current generation of leadership in America has set a rather low bar on keeping the republic and preserving freedom in America, as of December 2017, five months after the first printing of the pilot project edition of The Tennessee Star’s Guide to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for Secondary School Students, three months after the first Tennessee Star Constitution Bee held at Sycamore High School in Cheatham County, and four months before our second Tennessee Star Constitution Bee (to be held in Williamson County on April 28) we still have our republic.
The challenge of keeping our republic for the balance of the 21st century, and even into the 22nd will soon be in the hands of the generation of Americans currently in secondary schools, not the generation well past that age.
For those of us in the older generation, one of the best things we can do to pass the torch of constitutional liberty on to the next generation is to join the The Polk Foundation’s Constitution Mentor program.