What’s in the Bill of Rights?

It’s time for another series! We’ve decided to take up the Bill of Rights and give it a good going-over, since it seems that when people argue about preserving “the Constitution” they are only ever talking about the Bill of Rights section—the first set of amendments to the Constitution.

So let’s get right into it. For curiosity’s sake, and to give a sense of what was originally proposed, we’re going to start with the first two of the 12 amendments presented to the state legislatures for ratification; the only two that were not ratified.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

Article the first… After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

—The closing phrase of the first paragraph (from the short preamble) is interesting: these amendments are meant to “extend the ground of public confidence in the Government, to best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.” In other words, the amendments we know as the Bill of Rights are meant to make Americans more confident in the federal government because they prevent the federal government from ever overstepping its powers and becoming tyrannical. Yet today, most Americans seem to see the Bill of Rights as a weapon to use against a federal government that can only ever be tyrannical: instead of assuring us that our government will never be unfair, the Bill of Rights panics us that our government will always be unfair. The Bill was meant to put fears of tyranny to rest, but now it only ever stirs them up.

On to the first article, which was not ratified. It deals with representatives to Congress, and tries to anticipate the problems that population growth might provoke as the nation grows. The men drafting our Constitution and its amendments had this problem on their minds at all times. It was clear the nation would only experience exponential growth as it took over the continent from sea to sea. They tried to set up frameworks that would work in 1787, when the population was already a little unmanageably large, and work in 1887 or 1987, when they imagined the population to have soared far beyond their imagining.

The public imagination at the time, however, rejected this proposed amendment as impossible. One representative for 50,000 people? That wasn’t right: how could one person fairly and effectively represent so many? The other problem was this: if this amendment had been ratified, today we would have over 6,000 Representatives in the House. As it is, we have 435, and each House member represents over half a million people (about 650,000). When your population grows to hundreds of millions, it’s impossible to give them anything close to effectively individual representation.

When you think about it, that’s why political parties really took off. Parties allow thousands or millions of people to become one person, adopting one set of beliefs. If you represent 650,000 people and 500,000 of them are Republicans, if you just follow the party platform you will be accurately representing most of your district. You don’t have to try to get to know 500,000 personal beliefs. Early on in our history representatives and the represented figured this out.

Article the second… No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

—This failed amendment says that Congress can’t vote to change its pay during a term. Members can propose a pay change for the next term. To make sense of this, first we have to note that they only change in pay likely to be proposed is a raise. So this amendment says that Congress can’t give itself a pay raise without allowing the people to vote on it. What Congress can do is propose a pay raise for the next session, which allows people to vote on that pay raise: if they approve it, they re-elect the members who voted for it; if they don’t approve it, they elect new members. James Madison was behind this amendment because he didn’t think Congress should be allowed to pay itself arbitrarily without giving the people a chance to approve or reject the changes.

The interesting thing about this amendment is that it was not ratified in 1787—but it was ratified 202 years later, in 1992, as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment.

Next time: the amendment we know best