How Virginia Saved America, and Why Feb. 2 Should Be a Holiday

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

It is one of the most important dates in U.S. history, yet probably no more than a handful of people understand its significance. Everyone who cares about the Bill of Rights should know what happened on that day.

On Feb. 2, 1789 -- 218 years ago last Friday -- an election was held in a sprawling, eight-county district in the Piedmont of central Virginia. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was the election that saved America.

James Madison, the shy and diminutive statesman from Orange County, Va., was running for a seat in the House of Representatives in the First Congress. At 37, Madison already had helped to organize the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and to write a document that has endured for more than two centuries.

In June 1788, he led the Constitution's supporters to victory at the Virginia ratification convention by an 89 to 79 vote. His public speaking skills were no match for those of the charismatic Patrick Henry, who led the opposition. But during those grueling three weeks in a sweltering converted theater in Richmond, Madison demonstrated that he more deeply understood how to create a republic than any of his adversaries.

The original Constitution did not have a bill of rights, a shortcoming that alarmed the people. George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a delegate at the 1787 Philadelphia convention, demanded that a list of individual rights be added, but when his fellow delegates refused, he said he would "sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." He joined Henry in fighting adoption of the Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention.

With ratification in jeopardy, Americans were promised that in return for approving the Constitution, the new Congress would immediately propose amendments to protect individual liberty. Madison was determined to keep that promise.

Henry and other Anti-Federalists wanted to reverse the planned shift of power to the new federal government and believed that focusing on a bill of rights would prevent passage of more radical amendments. Madison's opponents did everything they could to keep him out of the First Congress so he could not offer a bill of rights.

First, Henry and his colleagues in the Virginia legislature elected two enemies of the Constitution to the U.S. Senate. Then they created a huge district from which Madison would have to seek election to the House. It included counties teeming with Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution and Madison. They recruited a strong opponent, future president James Monroe, to run against him.

On Election Day, it was brutally cold, about zero at sunrise. Ten inches of snow covered much of the district. Voters had to travel as far as 30 miles, which could take all day even in good weather, to get to their county seats to cast a ballot.

Riding on horseback or in an unheated carriage along bone-jarring frozen roads was uncomfortable and dangerous. The slightest wind would have cut through the flimsy clothes of homespun linen and wool that people wore then. Some would have suffered frostbite, as did Madison a few weeks before the election.

Enough people made it to the polls to elect Madison by only 336 votes.

He was thus able to use his extraordinary legislative skills to persuade two-thirds of each house of Congress to forward the Bill of Rights to the states. Although Mason was not involved at that point, the elegant language of his Virginia Declaration of Rights clearly influenced Madison in his drafting of the amendments.

If Madison had lost the election, a second constitutional convention likely would have been held to answer demands for the protection of individual rights.

Unlike the Philadelphia convention, this one probably would have been dominated by opponents of the Constitution who could have undone many of the delicate compromises that gave the new nation its start.

Feb. 2 deserves more recognition. So does the man from Virginia who overcame almost impossible odds to help create the nation we know today.

-- Richard Labunski

Lexington, Ky.

The writer, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky, is author of "James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights." His e-mail address is labunski@uky.edu.


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