Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, stumbled Tuesday over basic American history, crediting Thomas Jefferson for authorship of the Bill of Rights during a debate over the First Amendment and campaign finance.
"I think if Thomas Jefferson were looking down, the author of the Bill of Rights, on what's being proposed here, he'd agree with it. He would agree that the First Amendment cannot be absolute," Mr. Schumer said.
While Jefferson is deemed the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he was not intimately involved in the writing of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, which is the first 10 amendments to that founding document.
Indeed, Jefferson was out of the country, serving as minister to France at the time of both the Constitution convention and the congressional debate over the Bill of Rights. His fellow Virginians, James Madison and George Mason, are usually credited with being more influential in the process — Mason for being among the most forceful in demanding the protections of such a Bill of Rights, and Madison for being the political muscle that got them approved.
"Madison's support of the bill of rights was of critical significance," the National Archives writes on its web page. "One of the new representatives from Virginia to the First Federal Congress, as established by the new Constitution, he worked tirelessly to persuade the House to enact amendments."
The Archives goes on to recount Madison's efforts to shepherd a package of 17 amendments through the House in 1789 — a number that was later trimmed to 12 in the Senate, before being submitted to the states.
Of those, 10 were ratified fairly quickly. An 11th was ratified two centuries later, becoming the 27th Amendment.
Though he wasn't involved in the writing, Jefferson was a fan of adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, telling Madison in a Dec. 20, 1787, letter that it was a glaring hole in the Constitution that emerged from the convention.
"[A] bill of rights 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 wrote.
The new constitutional amendment Mr. Schumer is pushing now would grant government the power to control all campaign spending, including from individuals, candidates and outside groups. Republicans argue it is an assault on the First Amendment's protections of free speech, but Mr. Schumer says the First Amendment isn't absolute — it allows for laws banning pornography or endangering public safety.
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