The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

Demand for (and Resistance to) the United States Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights as Civic Education

The Relationship Between the People and Their Government

Madison saw a bill of rights as a form of civic education; its solemn declarations could be useful for teaching the citizenry the proper relationship between them and their government. In this way it could help shape their character and make tyrannical majorities less likely. He wrote: “The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the National sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”

This point was repeated when Madison initiated the debates in favor of a bill of rights in the First Congress. He said that, since these rights “have a tendency to impress some degree of respect for them, to establish the public opinion in their favor, and rouse the attention of the whole community, it may be one means to control the majority from those acts to which they might be otherwise inclined.” It was this argument that impressed itself most forcefully on St. George Tucker, in his constitutional commentary published in 1803:

A bill of rights may be considered, not only as intended to give law, and assign limits to a government about to be established, but as giving information to the people. By reducing speculative truths to fundamental laws, every man of the meanest capacity and understanding may learn his own rights, and know when they are violated; a circumstance, of itself, sufficient, I conceive, to counterbalance every argument against one.

A bill of rights might not be useful as a weapon against overweening government officials, but it may make such abuses less likely. A people who have been educated in the first principles of freedom are less likely to abuse the rights of others and more likely to know when their own rights have been transgressed.