The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as our Bill of Rights, which serve as a guarantee for our freedoms. But these amendments almost didn't happen. Join a group of middle schoolers on a tour of Washington, D.C. as they learn about the Constitution and what it means to be "We the People." The "We the People" videos are produced in collaboration with the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
We the People -- George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Student #1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...
Student #2: ...or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press...
Student #3: ...or right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition...
Speaker NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Our democracy is marked by freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of the press.
Sen. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-NC): These basic freedoms that were outlined centuries ago are still relevant to us today.
Student #1: …the right of the people to keep and bear arms...
Student #2: …protection from unreasonable searches and seizures...
KRISTEN WELKER, NBC News:
You've probably heard many of those words before. They're part of our Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution that serve as a guarantee for our freedoms. But these amendments almost didn't happen.
Hi everyone, I'm Kristen Welker with NBC News. We're going to join a group of middle schoolers here on a tour of Washington, D.C. as they learn about one founding father who fought hard for the Bill of Rights and for "We the People."
JEN EPSTEIN (National Park Service): Good morning everybody. How are you?
EPSTEIN: Yeah, this memorial was built to honor George Mason, who is a big part of our Constitution’s story.
BETHANY BAGENT (National Park Service): George Mason was a really interesting guy. He’s often referred to as either a reluctant statesman, because he didn't like politics and he didn't like politicians, or our forgotten founding father.
WELKER: Everyone has heard of George Washington, but you may not have heard of his neighbor and friend, George Mason. Mason was one of the wealthiest land owners in Virginia. Largely self-educated, he had become involved in politics, and during the American Revolution, he wrote Virginia's Declaration of Rights to protect people's freedoms. After the war, Mason took that passion from Virginia to Philadelphia, to the Constitutional Convention.
Rep. COLIN ALLRED (D-TX): Our founding fathers wanted to create an entirely new idea, a democracy that was made up of, for, and by the people. And at the time that was actually a very radical idea because most governments were led by kings and queens.
MATT COSTELLO (White House Historical Association): They all had different concerns about this idea of creating a stronger federal government. So with people like George Mason, they were against this idea of a strong centralized government and they thought it'd be much better to leave power in the hands of the state.
WELKER: Mason feared a strong central government could be a threat to our rights, much like the king they just fought. As they began to write a new constitution, mason was determined to include a protection for those rights, much as he did for Virginia.
WILLIAM DiGIACOMANTONIO (U.S. Capitol Historical Society): George Mason made sure that Virginia had a Declaration of Rights and he wanted to make sure that the United States had a declaration of rights.
Rep. ALLRED: So it's really, really critical to establish in that Bill of Rights some basic, fundamental rights.
KELLY (Student): People actually cared about us and wanted to establish a country for us to live in.
WELKER: But it wasn't that easy. The debates during the convention were fierce. Some delegates, like Mason, wanted power to remain with the states. While others wanted a strong federal government and believed including a Bill of Rights wasn't necessary.
DiGIACOMANTONIO: So, Mason became an obstructionist of ratification. He took a stand and he fought it.
COSTELLO: In the Constitutional Convention, the agreement was sort of, well, we'll deal with that down the road. There was no Bill of Rights really set in stone until after the fact.
WELKER: When the new Constitution was finally agreed on, it did not have a Bill of Rights. George Mason saw this as a personal failure and refused to sign the Constitution. Instead, he went home and quit politics forever.
BAGENT: He doesn't run for president, he doesn't run for Congress and he's not a member of anyone's cabinets. And so he kind of fades away into obscurity.
WELKER: Luckily, other states took up Mason's fight, and four years later they convinced Congress to add the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. Written by James Madison, the Bill of Rights used much of the same language that Mason had proposed.
LUIS (Student): The Bill of Rights gives me rights and gives you rights as well.
Speaker PELOSI: They are the protections of our democracy, that people can speak freely, gather in groups around an issue, the press can report on it. That is the essence of a democracy.
Rep. VIRGINIA FOXX (R-NC): Too many people nowadays don't really understand that our Constitution is a check on the government.
EPSTEIN: I just kind of marvel over the fact that we are still using this same set of laws 200-plus years later.
WELKER: Although his name is nowhere on the Constitution, George Mason's words still live on.
A framework for a Constitution and a new and stronger national government had been crafted at the Philadelphia Convention by a handful of leaders. But how could their proposed system be made into law?
Could they convince the public that the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation needed to be strengthened? The Articles required that any changes in constitutional law be presented to the state legislatures, and that any successful alteration required unanimous approval. Since the new proposal increased the power of the national government at the expense of state sovereignty, it was a certainty that one, and probably several more, state legislatures would oppose the changes.
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