December 15, 2015

Happy Bill of Rights Day: Please thank Virginia

By Todd F. Gaziano Chief of Legal Policy and Strategic Research, and Director, Center for the Separation of Powers

Today is the 224th anniversary of our constitutional Bill of Rights. The ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights were amendments number three through twelve of those originally proposed by the first Congress on Sept. 28, 1789. Thus, anyone who argues that toddour First Amendment is the most important because of its number alone is making an ignorant point, since it was the third of those proposed in 1789. FYI, the second was ratified much later as our Twenty-Seventh Amendment.

In all events, there are even more annoying historical falsehoods repeated around this time of year by residents of the Bay State (as if Massachusetts is the only state with a bay!) which are meant to imply that we owe all our cherished traditions and liberties to those hot heads. It’s not unlike how the savants in Hollywood and San Francisco think they know how the rest of us should live—or how Texans brag about the size of their state (the Governor of Alaska once remarked that, if Alaska were split in two, Texas would become the third largest state).

But the folks from Massachusetts take the prize for propagating historical fiction. My Virginia family has to regularly correct three of my brothers and their families who live in Massachusetts; it’s a civic responsibility that we shoulder as best we can. The truth, of course, is that the humble Virginians are responsible for the most important traditions, customs, and ideals of liberty in early American history.

Let’s start with the “First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth canard. Yes, there was a day or two of eating uncertain fare in Plymouth in 1621, which event was not regularly repeated, and had more to do with the Indians teaching people who tried to get to Virginia but settled for Plymouth how not to starve. Someone uttered a thanks for that. Woopee!

The New England literary set romanticized this event beyond all proportions, including that it was the “First Thanksgiving” (capital F intended) in America, as if that made it doubly special. None other than Massachusetts egotist John F. Kennedy and his Harvard historian buddy Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. repeated the false claim of primacy in 1962. But they were both made to correct their error the next year, shortly before JFK’s untimely death.

The first sustained British colony in America, Jamestown, Virginia, had its own “starving time” more than a decade earlier than the folks in Plymouth. And more than a dozen years after that, but two years before the New England turkey fest, settlers at the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia conducted the first thanksgiving ceremony, on Dec. 4, 1619. Moreover, it was a more purposeful “thanksgiving” because it was a legal requirement of their London charter and repeated every year.

We can skip over most of the Revolutionary War period, except to note that the Massachusetts colony got everyone in trouble, only to be saved by the military and political leadership from Virginia. It was, after all, a Virginian who explained to the world that certain truths were self-evident, including the existence of our most fundamental rights. The important contributions by Virginians to the Constitutional Convention are rarely disputed, even by those from Massachusetts.

But since this is Bill of Rights Day, we should also note that Virginians made invaluable contributions to that gift as well. Besides his central role at the Constitutional Convention, Virginian James Madison was the prime mover of the congressional resolutions that became the Bill of Rights. And it was the Virginia Legislature, on Dec. 15, 1791, that became the last (eleventh) state necessary to ratify the ten amendments that then became effective. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian (naturally), certified the amendments as part of the Constitution.

And Massachusetts? Its legislature ratified the amendments after its vote no longer mattered. Sadly, our current Secretary of State (from Massachusetts) is more concerned about appeasing dictators abroad and fretting about what the climate will be like in 100 years than our fundamental liberties.

In short, we should all thank Virginia for our liberties and tell John Kerry to spend more time at home. So sayeth the freedom-loving employees of PLF’s DC Center, who naturally all reside in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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