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George Mason's Instincts Were Right

Bicentennial of Bill of Rights is an opportunity to reaffirm its critical importance in American life

THE year 1991 - specifically Dec. 15 - will mark the bicentennial of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. In the perspective of this observance, it is appropriate now to recall some truths about the rights and freedoms we all too often tend to take for granted. From its very beginning in the Declaration of Independence, America has always been about rights and freedoms. But the struggle to secure these vital principles was never an easy one. In fact, during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, George Mason of Virginia often voiced his concerns about that struggle.

Before the convention adjourned, Mason made a final plea to the delegates to incorporate a bill of rights. Upon its rejection, he refused to sign the Constitution. He was not alone.

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During the subsequent debate over ratification of the Constitution, the absence of a bill of rights played a crucial role. Ultimately, the Constitution was ratified with the understanding that amendments comprising a bill of rights would follow its adoption.

In the first session of Congress, James Madison, who "never thought the omission a material defect," nevertheless was pressed to introduce a proposed bill of rights. After debate in the House and Senate, the first 10 amendments were passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification in September 1789. Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the Bill of Rights, thus making it part of the Constitution.

It was George Mason's broad vision of fundamental rights, as crafted mainly by James Madison, that we celebrate this year on the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.

It should be stressed that the Bill of Rights in general, and the First Amendment in particular, is anti-majoritarian. The First Amendment is the quintessential safeguard of the fundamental rights of religious and political minorities and dissenters: "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 redres s of grievances."

Congress, after all, always represents majorities, and the language of the First Amendment was designed to guard against a possible tyranny of a majority.

For 200 years, the Bill of Rights has stood the test of time. It has been a beacon of hope and a model for other nations. It should not be tampered with, not to punish flag-burners or for any other "urgent" reason.

But the Bill of Rights, alas, has not always "worked" for everyone. At the time of its ratification, it was no help whatever for Indians, who didn't count, or for black people who remained trap-ped in slavery. Nor was it of much help during the 1800s to the Mormons who were harried and persecuted for practicing their dissenting faith, or the victims of anti-Roman Catholic riots in Philadelphia and other cities.

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In more recent years, the Bill of Rights proved to be of no avail to Japanese-Americans who, as a result of racism and war hysteria, were evacuated and incarcerated in internment camps in 1942 without any evidence whatsoever that they threatened US security. Two-thirds of the people interned were American citizens. Yet the US Supreme Court upheld this gross deprivation of liberty by the government on grounds of national security, the Bill of Rights notwithstanding.

The lesson of that shameful episode is that the Bill of Rights can only be as vital and vibrant as the spirit of liberty abroad in the land. If that spirit is submerged or attenuated, for whatever reason or excuse, everyone's rights and freedoms are at risk.

We should be ever-vigilant to guard against that peril. In the words of the Williamsburg Charter: "A right for one is a right for another - and a responsibility for all."

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