Raise a Glass: The Bill of Rights Was About Food Freedom

Congress passed the Bill of Rights 225 years ago today. Why the struggle for food freedom is at the heart of those amendments.


Bill of Rights
Philip Dawe / Wikimedia Commons

On September 25, 1789—exactly 225 years ago today—Congress passed the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights.

Yes, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the ones that protect everything from free speech to due process—originated as a series of bills in Congress. They were drafted by future president James Madison, at the time a congressman from Virginia. Madison also wrote the text of the Constitution, which had established a system of limited government but hadn't explicitly protected individual rights. With the Bill of Rights, it now did both.

It's difficult to imagine today's Congress thinking up—nevermind passing—anything so profound as what Madison wrote in those ten amendments. But then, the experience of the Founding Fathers was far different from that of today's legislators. By most accounts, Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other colonists had grown up as happy British subjects. Yet the Founding Fathers would later cast off colonial rule by planning and then engaging in open revolt against Britain. They formed an entirely new country, and established a new form of government.

What was the impetus for these revolutionary changes? I argue that one key element was spiraling British attacks on colonists' "food freedom."

Beginning in the mid-1760s, facing debts, the British came to see America as a cash cow ready to be milked. Britain's Parliament passed the Sugar Act, the first direct tax on the colonists, in 1764. The Act, which effectively banned foreign rum, sugar, and molasses, also expanded a growing list of foods that could be obtained only through the British. Protests against the Act helped give rise to cries of "taxation without representation."

Under the subsequent Tea Act, the British dumped their own tea on the colonists, who protested with boycotts and the fateful Boston Tea Party.

British laws like the second Quartering Act, a response to the Boston Tea Party, gave British troops the authority to take specific foods like beer, vinegar, salt, and pepper from the colonists. (When New York's colonial legislature had failed to comply with the first Quartering Act's food mandates, Parliament had simply dissolved the legislature.) Parliament also soon passed the Fisheries Act, which prohibited colonists from fishing in the North Atlantic. By the time word of the fishing ban reached the colonies, the first shots of the American Revolution had already been fired at Lexington and Concord.

These attacks on food freedom incensed the Founding Fathers. The list of grievances Thomas Jefferson articulates in the Declaration of Independence includes rebukes of King George for permitting British troops to "eat out the[] substance" of colonists' cupboards and for trampling on colonists' fishing rights.

The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. But the acknowledgment by the Founding Fathers that a government of unchecked powers would trample Americans' food rights hadn't ended with the Declaration of Independence. In fact, James Madison himself had food and food freedom in mind as he wrote the words that became the Bill of Rights.

As I revealed in a scholarly article two years ago, the First Amendment's Assembly Clause traces its origins back to pre-revolutionary and revolutionary-era conversational gatherings among colonists from all walks of life as they sipped pints of ale, punch, and grog in taverns.

That's not all. The Supreme Court in recent years acknowledged the protection of hunting rights inherent in the Second Amendment. We wouldn't have a Third Amendment—which prohibits the quartering of troops in peacetime—had the Founding Fathers not felt the sting of acts that permitted British troops to steal colonists' food under the reviled quartering acts. Other examples of the relation between food and the Bill of Rights are found in at least three of the other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights.

Any way you look at it, food and the Bill of Rights are intimately tied. After work today, if you happen to stop off for a drink on your way home, consider toasting this landmark birthday of our rights.