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It was an event that did not then, as now, awaken much interest. Maryland had given its unanimous approval two years before on December 19,1789, and had turned its attention to other matters. Some states like Massachusetts would not even bother to ratify until reminded in the 1930s. By 1791 all of the heated debate over the necessity of amendments guaranteeing the rights of states and individuals in their relations with the new Federal government had moved on to making it all work within the carefully crafted framework that the Founding and Amending Fathers had created.
The level of optimism was contagious. Everyone permitted to participate in the political process seemed to believe firmly that while the "causes of faction" and party strife could never be removed entirely, their effects could be controlled through, to use James Madison's words in Federalist Number 10:
Regardless of their particular points of view, the faction or party leaders firmly believed that through a balanced government embedded in the Constitution they created, no problem confronting "We the People" could long remain unsolved.
Such a sweeping confidence began as early as 1776 when most of the hard work of defining rights and responsibilities was undertaken by each of the states as they struggled for the first time in such a large public arena to define on paper what those rights and responsibilities were supposed to mean. In 1776 most thinking and articulate people actively responded to the challenge of An American writing in the Annapolis Maryland Gazette in 1776:
The Maryland Constitutional Convention replied in an intermittent frenzy of constitution making that lasted from August until November, 1776. Like eight other state conventions, Maryland began with a resounding Declaration of Rights, increasing the eighteen proposed by Virginia the previous June, to a final forty-two. Among them was one which held that "all persons invested with the legislative or executive powers of government" to be
Not all states adopted such a far-reaching proposition which today survives only in our Maryland Constitution and as copied into those of New Hampshire and Tennessee, but it should serve to touch the conscience of a nation whose concern for the form and substance of government today appears to have lapsed into a coma of unparalleled apathy and ignorance. Today we seem to lack faith in the processes by which we are governed. We seem to have lost the hope and enthusiasm the Founding and Amending Fathers had for the creative process of making government work which went into "writing it all down," and the demanding process of implementation which followed.
One way in which this trend might be reversed is through a project Dr. Mercer Neale and I have developed over the past few years which attempts to bring teachers and students into contact with original documents through the Maryland State Archives: Documents for the Classroom project. By using inexpensive facsimiles of original materials we hope to rekindle interest in the process of our history while enhancing reading comprehension and improving analytical skills. To date we have developed fifteen packets ranging in content from the "Daily Life in the New World" to documenting the postwar careers of black Civil War Soldiers in "The Aftermath of Glory," "The Baltimore Strike and Riot of 1877," and the integration of the University of Maryland law school in 1936. Each document packet in its own way has a "Bill of Rights" theme, but the one most explicitly related to understanding how both our state and the national Bill of Rights came to be is "Writing it All Down: The Art of Constitution Making for the State and the Nation, 1776-1833."
Here, after struggling with the nearly illegible text of a closed session of the Maryland Constitutional Convention, and comparing it to the only known copy of the first draft of Maryland's Declaration of Rights,students discover Maryland's first attempt at abolishing slavery and condemning the slave trade.
Here the class encounters the first printed agenda for a National Bill of Rights authored by the twelve-man minority of the Maryland ratifying convention in 1788, an agenda adopted in large measure by first Patrick Henry, and then finally by a reluctant James Madison in 1789.
Here they read a front-page article from the Maryland Journal in 1788. When read in unison or in parts by the class as a whole, it becomes a persuasively eloquent, often poignantly prophetic plea for equal justice and freedom for blacks.
Here they find the full text of the 1826 "Act for the relief of the Jews" and probe the long and often tortuous process by which political rights were expanded to encompass all citizens regardless of religious preference.
Here they come across a map of Fells Point from the first quarter of the nineteenth century that figures prominently in the last Supreme Court case decided by Chief Justice John Marshall. Once a strong judicial nationalist, in 1833 Marshall refused to extend the protection of the Bill of Rights to individuals at odds with their States or local jurisdictions over property rights. Thus the wharf owners of Fells Point were denied the right to claim just compensation under the 5th Amendment when their wharfs were silted up from the run off from City streets. So thoroughly did Marshall dismiss the case that his decision would be reaffirmed by at least twenty other cases between 1877 and 1907, and would not be fully overturned until the late 1960s.
If we are right, there is indeed something new to be learned from documents now preserved in repositories such as the Maryland State Archives. Two hundred years ago people really believed that making government work for the benefit of all was worth the effort of debate and writing it all down. Perhaps it is again time that we heeded the clarion call of An American first issued in 1776. Perhaps we can rejuvenate that enthusiasm for making government work so evident in the writing of men like Madison and our own Samuel Chase. When Chase first heard the news that as a Delegate to Congress he was at last authorized by the Maryland Convention to vote for Independence, he could barely contain himself. Immediately he wrote to John Adams:
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The Documents for the Classroom series of the Maryland State Archives was designed and developed by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse and Dr. M. Mercer Neale and was prepared with the assistance of R. J. Rockefeller, Lynne MacAdam and other members of the Archives staff. MSA SC 2221-04. Publication no. 3918. © 1993 Maryland State Archives.
For further inquiries, please contact Dr. Papenfuse at:
Phone: MD toll free 800-235-4045 or (410) 260-6401
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