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Fundamental Freedoms That Are Carved in Stone

What would the Founding Fathers say? The Newseum facade features marble panels engraved with the First Amendment, but the need for the Bill of Rights was a contentious subject during the nation's early years.
What would the Founding Fathers say? The Newseum facade features marble panels engraved with the First Amendment, but the need for the Bill of Rights was a contentious subject during the nation's early years. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
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By Fred Barbash
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 6, 2008

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

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If only the members of the First Congress could see it now, the First Amendment, engraved in marble 74 feet high on the Pennsylvania Avenue facade of the Newseum. Perhaps they would be more enthusiastic than they were in 1789, when they reluctantly wrote the Bill of Rights.

They had little quarrel with the guarantees in the document.

They simply saw no need for a "parchment barrier."

Even the man who introduced the Bill of Rights, Rep. James Madison, called it a "nauseous project."

"A few milk and water amendments, such as liberty of conscience, a free press, and one or two general things already well secured," wrote Sen. Pierce Butler.

" . . . How wonderfully scrupulous have they been in stating rights," Virginia's own Sen. Richard Henry Lee wrote to Patrick Henry. "The English language has been carefully culled to find words feeble in their nature or doubtful in their meaning."

"Mutilated," "gutted," "good for nothing" and "harmless" were among the choice words from other members of the First Congress. "You will find our amendments to the Constitution calculated merely to amuse, or rather to deceive," wrote Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, summing it up.

To deceive whom? He did not need to say. Congress wrote the Bill of Rights fitfully over the spring and summer of 1789 not to please a grateful nation, but to appease a skeptical one. The Constitution had been ratified in June 1788 over the bitter opposition of the likes of Patrick Henry and other anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution because they saw in it the seeds of tyranny and demanded a declaration of rights as protection.

They threatened not merely amendments to the document but a second constitutional convention to reopen the charter, a nightmarish prospect.

"A sop" would be too crude a description of how members of that Congress viewed the Bill of Rights. They preferred the literary "a tub to a whale," an allusion to Jonathan Swift's tale of sailing men who, "when they meet a whale . . . fling him out an empty tub by way of amusement, to divert him from laying violent hands upon the ship."

In this case the ship was the new "ship of state" still finding its direction.


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