On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became part of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, it is fair to say that without this list of fundamental rights, the Constitution itself may not have survived. Several of the 13 original states ratified the Constitution only after assurances were given that these essential amendments would be added to, or incorporated in, the main document.
And just how did the Founders decide upon these 10 amendments and these specific rights? With a single exception, they were suggested by the 13 states, some of which had included declarations of individual rights in their state constitutions. During the first Congress, which convened in March 1789, Rep. James Madison headed a committee that considered 145 amendments that had been formally proposed and ratified by the various states. These were whittled down to 17 amendments, then reorganized into 12, and in September 1789, the 12 amendments were submitted to the states for their approval.Two of the original amendments (concerning the size of the House of Representatives and congressional salaries) were turned down, but the remaining 10 were approved by the necessary three-quarters of the states (Virginia was the tenth state to ratify), and the Bill of Rights became the law of the land. The other three states - Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia - did not formally ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939.
It is difficult for children today to understand the importance that our ancestors attached to this statement of fundamental individual rights and freedoms. We can only vaguely imagine what it must have been like during the Revolution to have soldiers quartered in our homes or to be prevented from meeting with others to discuss whatever we might wish. Indeed, it is getting harder each day to find examples of nations that deny their people the right to pray or speak or assemble in any way they choose.
So why is it that children hear so often about various threats to their "basic freedoms" and even speak so glibly about something's being an "invasion of their Constitutional rights"? This occurs in large part, I think, because we have failed to instill in them the need to know the difference between something that is "a right" and something that is "right."
Over the past two decades or so, as other elements of society have abandoned their role in moral leadership for a variety of reasons, parents have been left the entire responsibility for teaching their children the difference between right and wrong. Yet it is precisely that difference - the idea that there are universal rights and wrongs that apply to all people at all times and everywhere - that lies at the heart of the Bill of Rights. Our ancestors saw these amendments not as a list of brand new laws, but as a written statement of timeless, natural laws that merely set forth how people behave in a society when they are guided by reason and responsibility to others.
John Locke, the 17th-century English philosopher, pointed out that all human beings are born free, "But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license." The more we help our children set their own moral compass, and encourage them to lead their lives in its direction, the more they will be living the Bill of Rights rather than using it to justify some unconsidered and irresponsible act.