The Bill of Rights Wasn't That Radical

Sheldon Richman on how the Bill of Rights largely embodied uncontroversial traditional rights of Englishmen


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It is important to understand that the framers of the second U.S. constitution—the successor to the Articles of Confederation—did not intend for the complex governmental structure devised at the federal convention of 1787 to protect Americans' liberty directly, writes Sheldon Richman. Rather, the ultimate protector was to be the ruling elite. The purpose of the political process established in 1789 was to assure that the right sort of people would be selected to govern and the wrong sort would be weeded out.

The Bill of Rights—the 10 amendments adopted immediately after the new American government was put into operation—largely embodied uncontroversial traditional rights of Englishmen, writes Richman. This does not mean the Bill of Rights was worthless. To the extent it has worked to restrain government power, we should be grateful. But its presence eventually shifted attention from asking where in the Constitution a claimed power was specified to asking where in the Bill of Rights a claimed right was specified. And the effort to procure the Bill of Rights distracted from weightier matters and left the national government with its frighteningly broad powers largely intact.