Today, December 15th, is National Wear Your Pearls Day, National Cupcake/Lemon Cupcake Day, and Cat Herders Day.
It’s also one of the most important and least celebrated days in U.S. history, Bill of Rights Day. On this day in 1791, Virginia became the 10th out of 14 states to ratify the first ten amendments to the Constitution, making them the official law of the land, a milestone important enough for nationaldaycalendar.com to rank Bill of Rights Day third out of the four national days listed for December 15th, beating out only Cat Herders Day.
The first Bill of Rights Day was officially designated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, and was universally ignored, coming as it did so soon after Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declarations of war against Japan and Germany. Bill of Rights Day has languished in obscurity ever since, a victim of our general indifference towards history, as well the misfortune of falling between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
With that kind of competition it’s doubtful Bill of Rights Day will ever get the attention it deserves. But it would be nice to see it and the Bill of Rights get at least passing mention once a year, certainly more than pearls and cupcakes. I say this not just because the Bill of Rights remains the most successful assertion of individual rights and liberties ever written, but also because without the Bill of Rights there’d likely be no United States to celebrate it in. The fledgling country was falling apart when the new Constitution was adopted, with many of the state delegations making it known that their approval was contingent on adding a Bill of Rights posthaste. Only after ratification was the deal finally sealed, giving the United States a second chance at nationhood.
The rest is history, but rather than boring you with more of that dreary subject, let me make the case for why the Bill of Rights is relevant today. For starters, its principles and freedoms - things like individual liberty, checks and balances, equality under the law, and the free exchange of ideas - aren’t mere concepts. They’re the cornerstones of our prosperity and social dynamism, which for all their shortcomings have proven remarkably resilient over the last 225 years.
And, for those alarmed as the world’s liberal democracies are seemingly turning away from pluralism and universal rights, the Bill of Rights offers this singular cautionary insight to bring to the debate: that whenever power becomes concentrated in too few hands, it inevitably becomes abusive to individual liberty.
The founders’ brilliance was to recognize that this is not merely the tyrant’s mindset, but the nature of power itself. And not just the power of the state, but all concentrations of power, whether political, military, religious or economic, including what Madison called “the tyranny of the majority.” So they strived to design a system that could curb the worst parts of human nature while liberating the best.
The Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on individual liberty, was the blueprint they settled on. Admittedly its freedoms were only available to five percent of the people at the time. Yet the amendments themselves did not contain a single exclusionary clause, so as our understanding of freedom grew from the experience of it, along with the wrenching tragedy of a civil war, the Bill of Rights remained a beacon illuminating the path forward.
It’s a testament to the power of these ideals that today virtually every American believes the Bill of Rights belongs equally to all, even those that haven’t read it since civics class. If that includes you, I’d like to suggest that the occasion of its 225th anniversary might be a good time. It won’t take long. It’s actually shorter than this op-ed, and you can find it (in 17 languages) here.
Chris Bliss is the Executive Director of MyBillofRights.org, The Bill of Rights Monument Project.