Today is Constitution Day. Established in 2004, the federal holiday is a celebration and commemoration of the ratification of our Constitution. To celebrate we have excerpted part of the introduction to Richard Labunski’s James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. The book is a fascinating tale of an unlikely hero- James Madison- and his efforts to save the Constitution by adding a Bill of Rights.
After the Constitution was written in the summer of 1787 and the Confederation Congress forwarded it to the states, delegates at many of the ratifying conventions became alarmed by the planned transfer of power to the new federal government. They worried that the states would no longer exist as independent sovereignties and would instead become subservient to a potentially oppressive and unaccountable central government.
By June 1788, enough state conventions had approved the Constitution to launch the new government. But the bare minimum needed for ratification was not enough. Virginia, the largest state and politically powerful, and New York, fifth in population but of immense commercial importance, would have to join the union of it was doomed.
Imagine now what might have been.
After three weeks of passionate and intense debate, Virginia delegates at the ratifying convention in Richmond narrowly rejected the Constitution. Led by Patrick Henry, George Mason, and other Anti-Federalists, opponents of the Constitution demanded that a second constitutional convention be held immediately to propose amendments to return power to the states, where the rights of citizens would be better protected…
Word quickly spread around the country that with Virginia out of the new republic, its most prominent citizen, George Washington, would be ineligible for the presidency. Because so many people had agreed to the new plan only because Washington would become the first chief executive, support for the Constitution quickly eroded….
What stood between this scenario and the nation’s eventual history was a five-foot-four, hundred-pound, shy intellectual with a quiet voice, who worried almost constantly about his health and mortality. James Madison was a most unlikely candidate for this daunting task. Yet he played a central role at the most important events that shaped the nation’s founding period, including the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia ratifying convention, and the First Congress, where he worked tirelessly to see the Bill of Rights approved. Without Madison, those ten amendments, which became the foundation for individual liberty, might not have become part of the Constitution – then or perhaps ever.
Check out these other OUP titles to learn more about the Constitution.