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The Anniversary No One Remembers--But Should

Historians/History




Mr. Labunski, Ph.D., J.D., is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. He is writing a book about James Madison and the Bill of Rights.

No date in American history is more important and less known than Feb. 2. Probably no student in a high school or college classroom learns what happened on that day. Even many historians don't understand its significance.

On Feb. 2, 1789 , an election was held in a sprawling, eight county district in the Piedmont area 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, Virginia, was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the First Congress.

At 37, Madison had already accomplished a lifetime of achievements including helping to organize the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and to write a document that created a government that has endured for more than two centuries.

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

The original Constitution did not have a bill of rights, a shortcoming that haunted its supporters during the months it was debated and ratified. The American people were promised that in return for approving the Constitution, the new Congress would immediately propose amendments to protect individual liberty. Madison wanted to keep that promise.

Henry and his cohorts vigorously opposed such a plan. They wanted to reverse the 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 sponsor 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 U.S. House. It included counties teeming with Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution and who would vote against Madison .

They recruited a strong opponent, future president James Monroe, to run against him.

On election day, it was brutally cold, about zero degrees at sunrise. Ten inches of snow covered much of the district. People had to travel as far as 30 miles to get to their county seat to cast a ballot.

Riding on horseback or in an unheated carriage for hours along bone-jarring frozen roads was indescribably uncomfortable. The slightest wind would have cut through the flimsy clothes of homespun linen and wool that many people wore in those days. Some would have suffered frostbite, as did Madison during the days before the election.

Enough people made it to the polls to elect Madison by only 336 votes. He was thus able to put to use his extraordinary legislative skills to convince two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress to forward the Bill of Rights to the states.

If Madison had been defeated and the First Congress had not offered protection for personal rights, demand for a new constitutional convention would have greatly intensified. Five states (Massachusetts, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York) had approved amendments at their ratifying conventions that they wanted addressed by the First Congress. Several had come close to making their approval of the Constitution contingent upon the adoption of amendments.

Unlike the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the new convention would have been dominated by such figures as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, who had both declined to attend the first convention, and George Mason, who attended the Philadelphia convention but refused to sign the Constitution. The Virginia General Assembly, dominated by Henry's forces, would not have sent Madison to a second convention.

Henry and other Anti-Federalists were not just concerned about protecting rights. They strongly objected to the first convention's decision to make the states subordinate to the new federal government. A second convention may have proposed amendments similar to the Bill of Rights we know today, but the Anti-Federalists would not have stopped there. They would have offered changes to the Constitution that would have altered its fundamental structure. The states would have regained much of the power they had lost in the summer of 1787.

The Constitution provides little guidance on how such a convention would be organized. Article V says only that Congress shall call a convention upon the request of two-thirds of the states and that any proposed amendments from a convention must be approved by state legislatures or state conventions, just as if they had been proposed by Congress.

There is nothing in the Constitution on how the delegates to a second convention would be selected; whether the agenda has to be limited to the subjects outlined in the petitions submitted by the states; or if Congress has the authority to decide which amendments will be submitted to the states for ratification.

With the multiple steps involved—the petitions submitted by the states; the calling of the convention; the meeting of the convention; the submission of the proposed amendments to the states; and the ratification debates within the states—the issues would not have been settled for years. During that time, the people of the United States and foreign governments would not know what the “new” constitution would look like. The political and financial instability caused by such a situation would have been severely damaging, if not fatal, to the new nation.

Feb. 2 seems lost to history. It deserves more recognition. And so does the man from Virginia who overcame almost impossible odds to give us a Bill of Rights and to help create the nation we know today.


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Calvin G. Hoover - 2/13/2004


Indeed. I think it was Jefferson who spoke of the need for periodic revolutions to keep the tree of liberty nourished.


Nemo - 1/23/2004

Oscar's observations on Kentucky are an interesting counterpoint to something I read recently about Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (still in force and the oldest written constitution in force anywhere in the world) contained a provision that no amendments could be made for at least 15 years. This provision helped spark the embattled debtors of MA to revolt in 1786, as they did not feel the existing government was addressing their needs and the possibility of constitutional change was still almost a decade away.


Oscar Chamberlain - 1/21/2004

Your are right; weakness is a result when constitutional questions linger.

On a small scale, Kentucky is an example. The primary author of the 1792 Constitution, George Nicholas, anticipated that many people would move to Kentucky after statehood was declared. (He was hoping for lots of rich slaveholders.)

Following a suggestion of Madison's (ironically enough), he proposed to the convention that, if the legislature called for it, a new constitutional convention be convened in 7 years (1799).

New people did move to Kentucky, but the semi-automatic convention provision kept politics up in the air. Anyone who opposed action by the new state government set his hopes on overturning it with a new convention.
So the Kentucky's government was very unstable until after 1799.