I’ve made an interesting discovery about the history of the Bill of Rights that I want to share. In prior posts, I’ve noted that people did not start commonly calling the first set of amendments a bill of rights until around 1900. One step in that direction was when Congress created a territorial government for the Philippines in 1902 and gave some of the guarantees of the first set of amendments to that colony (though the Act did not call this part of a bill of rights, the Supreme Court did in 1904). More broadly, the Court’s cases on Puerto Rico and the Philippines define the bill of rights in the modern sense more often (though they did not speak to the importance of the bill of rights in the way that we do).
In observing all of this, my initial thought was that there might be a connection between the transformation of the bill of rights and colonialism. The acquisition of colonies was controversial at the time, and extending basic rights could have been a way to satisfy critics and quell the rebellion that was ongoing in the Philippines. But is there any evidence that people cared about this issue then?
I think so. A month after William Jennings Bryan was nominated for president by the Democratic Party in 1900, he gave his acceptance speech in Indianapolis. (In those days, presidential candidates did not accept their nomination at the convention.) Most of Bryan’s speech was an attack on imperialism, and he stated his line of attack this way:
There is no place in our system of government for the deposit of arbitrary and irresponsible power. That the leaders of a great party should claim for any president or congress the right to treat millions of people as mere “possessions” and deal with them unrestrained by the constitution or the bill of rights shows how far we have already departed from the ancient landmarks and indicates what may be expected if this nation deliberately enters upon a career of empire.
Why is this important? As far as I can tell, this is the first time that any major presidential candidate said anything about the bill of rights as we understand that term. Moreover, Bryan made the issue that Congress addressed two years later–colonies could not be governed without the protection of (at least part of) the bill of rights. Bryan, in essence, made the definition of the first set of amendments as a bill of rights into a significant political issue.