In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed December 15 Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding document’s ratification in 1791. December 15 was to be, in Roosevelt’s words, “a day of mobilization for freedom and for human rights, a day of remembrance of the democratic and peaceful action by which these rights were gained, a day of reassessment of their present meaning and their living worth.”
In this spirit, Bill of Rights Day is an opportunity to look back at the history of individual rights in the United States – to mark our high and low points and assess our progress toward bringing to life the promise of our founding documents.
When delegates from the 13 states drafted the Constitution of the United States in the summer of 1787, it did not include a specific declaration of individual rights. It specified what the government could do but did not say what it could not do.
The absence of a bill of rights turned out to be an obstacle to the Constitution's ratification by the states. After four years of intense debate, the states’ delegates resolved to establish the protection of individual rights as a central focus of their new federal government. As a result, the Bill of Rights, inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, was adopted, and on December 15, 1791, the Constitution's first ten amendments became law.
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Of course, the Bill of Rights did not initially protect everyone — the "consent of the governed" meant propertied white men only. It would take generations of work before the liberties granted by the Bill of Rights were understood to apply to all, and the full extent of these rights is still being tested today.
Just as the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 by men who could not know the impact this document would have for individual rights in the future, Roosevelt’s 1941 declaration came at a time when our contemporary concept of civil liberties was still in its infancy.
In 1941, racial segregation was legal and pervaded all aspects of American society, gender discrimination was firmly institutionalized, and the Supreme Court had only recently begun striking down laws and governmental actions on First Amendment grounds. Further, the same president who called on Americans to recognize Bill of Rights Day also – three months later – issued an order that resulted in the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in “war relocation camps.”
Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been our nation’s strongest defender of the Bill of Rights. From being one of the only organizations to denounce Japanese American internment in the ‘40s, to helping end segregation in public schools, to exposing government-authorized torture, the ACLU has worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between what we, as a nation, say we stand for – and what we actually do.
With the help of nearly 30,000 members and supporters across Ohio, the ACLU of Ohio takes on this fight in our state. Any glance at the news will show that, 222 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, our work is as important as ever. In celebration of Bill of Rights Day, join the ACLU of Ohio as we continue to stand up for individual rights and work to make them more than just words on a page.