By the closing gavel of America’s first Congress, a new representative government of the people had made the dreams of the Constitution’s drafters real, enshrining the first rights of conscience, petition, privacy and the rule of law into a Bill of Rights.
American lawmakers adopted the first 10 Amendments all at once, in 1791, culled from more than 200 suggested changes during the state ratification debates over the previous two years. This was Congress’ first contract with America, which is to say our first contract with ourselves. James Madison took the responsibility of drafting the words, having already taken the responsibility of assembling the pieces, and he wrote to clarify the people’s guaranteed rights and explain the limits to the government’s power, established for the protection of its citizens.
Looking back from today, it’s still a monumental moment, as Yale’s Akhil Amar has said a “hinge-point” in human history, between tyranny and democracy. But there has always been a gap between rights promised and rights delivered in America. The Founders failed to confront the institution of slavery. The enfranchisement of women took more than a century to get right, and even today we still have pay inequality. The history of Native Americans is littered with broken contracts and abuses. And a quick glance at the newspapers will confirm that the struggles to right these wrongs continues today.
What we can say proudly, as a nation, is the adoption of the Bill of Rights established the first self-improving system that protects essential human freedoms, and it also instigated the astonishing rise of modern democracies throughout the globe.
Freedom House notes there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage at the turn of the 20th century, including our own. But by 2000, 120 of the world’s 192 nations had adopted a form of government with universal suffrage. The number continues to grow (123 today) because humans naturally want freedom.
In our work at Montpelier, we educate people whose work requires a comprehensive understanding of the Constitution and our system of government: teachers, law enforcement officers and public officials. I witness firsthand how the issues of our time create space for new protections and challenges of our rights, and how the law evolves over time to guarantee our freedom. Nothing is ever perfect, but I continue to believe that a more perfect union is attainable.
I know that many people feel pessimism about the state of global and national politics. I am not one of them, though I am discouraged principally by our country’s low voter turnouts and disillusionment with government. Government and politicians, the members of our first Congress, passed legislation that has granted us our freedoms. They didn’t do it without compromising, and they didn’t do it behind closed doors. They felt a tremendous urgency to get something accomplished they knew would define the nation’s history.
Madison said, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Madison and the rest of the Framers, recognizing that humans usually act in their own self-interest, designed a government capable of protecting ourselves from ourselves by creating gridlock when the majority and the minorities can’t agree. In other words, our system works best when there is a productive gravity in the middle of the two main parties, not at the poles of each. Government wasn’t designed for politics; it was the other way around.
Now that the U.S. national elections have been resolved, we should stop feigning surprise that there are political and ideological differences between our two major parties. American has been divided many times before, and the next cycle of division will begin the day after the inauguration. But we need our lawmakers to recognize problems, articulate solutions and pursue compromises.
As Americans, we need to trust our system of government, listen to each other and rebuild the gravity in our center by understanding what it is we want. We have many more interests in common than the current state of our politics would suggest. If the next Congress is looking for an agenda to pursue, they should start there.
• C. Douglas Smith is vice president for the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier.