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This Day in History: Virginia Ratifies the Bill of Rights

Little-known facts about the Bill of Rights

By Richard Labunski, author of James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.

James_madisonDecember 15th is a special day in American history. It was on this day in 1791 that Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the Bill of Rights, thus officially adding the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Few people know how close we came to not having those amendments, which have become the foundation of individual liberty. If not for the extraordinary efforts of James Madison, who had to overcome one obstacle after another, we might not have had a bill of rights then or perhaps ever.

Today is a good time to think about our fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and press and religion and the other rights protected by those amendments.

Here are some facts you may not know about the Bill of Rights:

  • Many people assume that the First Amendment is listed first because of the paramount importance of freedom of speech, press and religion. But when the First Congress sent 12 amendments to the states, what we know today as the First Amendment was listed third. It moved up to its exalted position only because the first two original amendments were not ratified during the 1789-1791 period.

  • The Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution provide protection only from government, not from private entities. For example, students at a private university have no First Amendment right to demonstrate or hand out literature on the campus, while students at a public university (because it is a unit of government) are granted such rights (although some reasonable limits can be enforced).
  • When it became part of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, not the states. It was not until 1925, for example, that states had to abide by the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment. Not until 1961 did the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure limit the power of the states. When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, citizens wanted protection against the new and potentially dangerous federal government. They were less worried about oppression by the states.
  • For all of his highly developed political skills, James Madison made one of the most egregious errors of his long career when he insisted that the amendments that became the Bill of Rights be scattered throughout the Constitution. He believed that unless they were placed next to the original language they were modifying, no one would take them seriously. Imagine how much less the Bill of Rights would mean today if instead of being listed separately at the end of the Constitution, the amendments were sprinkled throughout the document.
  • For a while during the ratification period, both supporters and opponents of the Constitution were lukewarm or strongly unreceptive to adding a bill of rights, something that is hard to understand today considering how important those amendments have become. Some supporters of the Constitution thought the document should have more experience before it was changed and that the First Congress had more important business to deal with in the early days of the new government. Opponents objected mostly because they knew that new amendments protecting individual rights would satisfy the people and prevent the passage of more radical amendments, which opponents hoped would stop the planned transfer of power to the new federal government.

Richard Labunski is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. Labunski has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California and a J.D. from Seattle University School of Law. To learn more about James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights check out this excerpt from the book. To learn more about “This Day In History” read Labunski’s article in the Star-Ledger titled, “A Difficult Birth for the Bill of Rights,” or his article in The Enquirer, “Honor Madison Today For Bill of Rights.”

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  1. walls of the city

    so what gives on this second amendment infatuation?

    I feel like I am writing some sixth-grade essay on what I did over the summer…Well, off we go. First, a little information about myself, seeing as I am one of the more solipsistic people I know.And have one of…

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This Day in History: First Wireless Message Sent Across the Atlantic Ocean

On this day in history, in 1901 Marchese Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless message and transformed communications forever. We wanted to learn more about him so we went to Oxford Reference Online and found his entry in A Dictionary of Scientists.

Marconi, Marchese Guglielmo (1874–1937) Italian electrical engineer Marconi, the second son of a prosperous Italian country gentleman and a wealthy Irishwoman, was born in Bologna, Italy, and educated there and in Leghorn (Livorno). He studied physics under several well-known teachers and had the opportunity of learning about the work carried out on electromagnetic radiation by Heinrich Hertz, Oliver Lodge, Augusto Righi, and others.

Marconi became interested in using Hertz’s ‘invisible rays’ to signal Morse code and in 1894 began experimenting to this end at his father’s estate. Similar work was being done at the time in Russia by Aleksandr Popov. Although he convinced himself of the importance of this new system and was soon able to transmit radio signals over a distance of more than a mile, he received little encouragement to continue his work in Italy and was advised to go to England.

Shortly after arriving in London in February 1896 Marconi secured the interest of government officials from the war office, the admiralty, and the British postal service. The next five years he spent demonstrating and improving the range and performance of his equipment, and overcoming the prevailing skepticism about the usefulness of this form of transmission. In 1897 he helped to form the Wireless Telegraphic and Signal Co. Ltd., which in 1900 became Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd. He achieved the first international wireless (i.e., radio) transmission, between England and France, in March 1899; this aroused considerable public interest and attracted attention in the world’s press. In the same year the British fleet’s summer naval maneuvers, for which Marconi equipped several ships with his apparatus, helped to convince the admiralty and mercantile ship owners of the value of radio telegraphy at sea.

In December 1901 Marconi succeeded in transmitting radio signals in Morse code for the first time across the Atlantic, a distance of some 2000 miles (3200 km). Already well known, Marconi created a sensation, became world famous overnight, and silenced many of his critics from the scientific world who had believed that because radio waves travel in straight lines they could not follow the curvature of the Earth. This phenomenon was explained by Arthur Kennelly the following year as being due to the presence of a reflecting layer – the ionosphere – in the Earth’s atmosphere. Thus by 1901 radio telegraphy had become a practical system of communication, especially for maritime purposes. Marconi spent the rest of his life improving and extending this form of communication, and managing his companies.

Although a good deal of Marconi’s work was based on the ideas and discoveries of others he was granted various patents and was responsible for some notable inventions. These included the first of all patents on radio telegraphy based on the use of waves (1896), the elevated antenna (1894), patent 7777, which enabled several stations to operate on different wavelengths without mutual interference (1900), the magnetic detector (1902), the horizontal directional antenna (1915), and the timed-spark system of generating pseudo-continuous waves (1912).

From about 1916, Marconi began to exploit the use of radio waves of short wavelength, which allowed a more efficient transmission of radiant energy. In 1924 the Marconi company obtained a contract to establish short-wave communication between England and the British Commonwealth countries and by 1927 a worldwide network had been formed. In 1932 Marconi installed a short-wave radio telephone system between the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.

Despite having little interest in anything outside radio Marconi several times acted in an official capacity for his government: he was sent as a plenipotentiary delegate at the 1919 Paris peace conference. In 1923 he joined the Fascist Party and became a friend of Mussolini. Marconi received several honorary degrees and many awards, which included the Nobel Prize for physics jointly with Karl Braun (1909), being made a marquis (marchese) in 1929, and president of the Royal Italian Academy (1930). At his death he was accorded a state funeral by the Italian government. All Post Office wireless telegraph and wireless telephone services in the British Isles observed a two-minute silence at the hour of his funeral.

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This Day in History: Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

On this date in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and in doing so became a driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement. To celebrate her courageous decision we have excerpted her entry from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience
which we found by using the African American Studies Center. This article is written by Marian Aguiar.

Parks, Rosa Louise McCauley, 1913–2005

African American civil rights activist, who is often called the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for disregarding an order to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. Her protest galvanized a growing movement to desegregate public transportation and marked a historic turning point in the African American battle for civil rights. Parks was much more than an accidental symbol, however. It is sometimes overlooked that at the time of her arrest, she was no ordinary bus rider; she was an experienced activist with strong beliefs.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. She was the granddaughter of former slaves and the daughter of James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a rural schoolteacher. The future civil rights leader grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where she attended the all-black Alabama State College. In 1932 she married Raymond Parks, a barber, with whom she became active in Montgomery’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Raymond Parks’s volunteer efforts went toward helping free the defendants in the famous Scottsboro Case, in which nine young black men were accused of raping two white women. Rosa Parks worked as the NAACP chapter’s youth adviser. In 1943, when Rosa Parks actually joined the NAACP, her involvement with the organization became even greater. She worked with the organization’s state president, Edgar Daniel Nixon, to mobilize a voter registration drive in Montgomery. That same year, Parks was elected secretary of the Montgomery branch.

In the early 1950s Parks found work as a tailor’s assistant at a department store, Montgomery Fair. She also had a part-time job as a seamstress for Virginia and Clifford Durr, a white liberal couple; they encouraged Parks in her civil rights work. Six months before her famous protest, Parks received a scholarship to attend a workshop on school integration for community leaders held at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.

The segregated seating policies on public buses had long been a source of resentment within the black community in Montgomery and in other cities throughout the Deep South. African Americans were required to pay their fares at the front of the bus and then to reboard through the back door. The white bus drivers, who were invested with police powers, frequently harassed blacks, sometimes driving away before African American passengers were able to get back on the bus. During peak hours, the drivers pushed back the boundary markers that segregated the bus, crowding those in the “colored section” to provide more whites with seats.

On December 1, 1955, Parks took her seat in the front of the “colored section” of a Montgomery bus. The driver asked Parks and three other black riders to relinquish their seats to whites, but Parks refused (the others complied). The driver called the police, and Parks was arrested. She was released later that night after Nixon and the Durrs posted a $100 bond.

Although three black women had been arrested earlier that year for similar acts of defiance, and Parks herself had been thrown off a bus by the same driver twelve years before, this time the opponents of segregation were prepared to mount a counterattack. The Supreme Court had ruled against segregated interstate bus travel in 1946, after Irene Morgan, an African American woman, refused to give up her bus seat to a white couple. The Montgomery chapter of the NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge the legality of segregated seating on city buses and to woo public opinion with a series of protests. The morning after her arrest, Parks agreed to let the NAACP take on her case. Another organization, the Women’s Political Council (WPC), led by JoAnn Robinson, initiated the idea of a one-day bus boycott. Within twenty-four hours of Parks’s defiance, the WPC had distributed more than 52,000 fliers announcing the bus boycott, which was to take place the day of Parks’s trial. On December 5, as buses went through their routes almost empty, Parks was convicted by the local court. She refused to pay the fine of $14, and with the help of her lawyer, Ed D. Gray, she appealed to the circuit court.

On the evening of December 5, several thousand protesters crowded into the Holt Street Baptist Church to create the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They rallied behind its new president, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just moved to Montgomery as the new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. What was planned as a daylong bus boycott swelled to 381 days, during which time 42,000 protesters walked, carpooled, or took taxis rather than ride the segregated city buses of Montgomery. In a move designed to reverse the segregation laws on public transportation, King and the MIA filed a separate case in a U. S. district court. The district court ruled for the plaintiffs, declaring segregated seating on buses unconstitutional. The decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Parks was widely known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, but her iconic stature afforded her little financial security. She lost her job as a seamstress at Montgomery Fair and was unable to find other work in Montgomery. Parks and her husband relocated to Detroit, Michigan, in 1957, where they struggled financially for the next eight years. Parks’s fortunes improved somewhat in 1965, when U.S. congressional representative John F. Conyers, Jr. hired her as an administrative assistant, a position she held until 1988.

Parks has remained a committed activist. In the 1980s she worked in support of the South African Antiapartheid movement, and in Detroit in 1987 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, a career counseling center for black youth.

Parks has received numerous awards and tributes, including the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, in 1970 and the prestigious Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in 1980. Cleveland Avenue in the city of Montgomery was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1965. In 1996 U.S. president Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the U.S. government can give to a civilian. Parks received an NAACP image award in 2000 for her appearance in the television drama series Touched by an Angel. On 24 October 2005 Parks died of natural causes at her home; she was ninety-two. After lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda (the first woman to be so honored), Parks was laid to rest in Detroit, Michigan. Her funeral was attended by more than 4,000 mourners.

A friend once described Parks as someone who, as a rule, did not defy authority, but once determined on a course of action, refused to back down: “She might ignore you, go around you, but never retreat.”

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