Today in History

Today in History: December 15

Happy Hanukkah

In 2006, the eve of December 15, marked the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 164 or 165 BCE. Hanukkah falls on the eve of the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar. Also referred to as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah recalls the Talmudic story of the Temple's one-day supply of oil miraculously burning for eight days.

A family celebrating Hanukkah
Reproduction of Painting by Arthur Syzk,
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress has long been recognized as one of the world's foremost centers for the study of Hebrew and Yiddish materials. Established in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitica and Oriental Literature, it grew from Jacob H. Schiff's 1912 gift of nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets from the private collection of a well-known bibliographer and bookseller Ephraim Deinard. The section houses works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, and Amharic. Holdings are especially strong in the areas of the Bible and rabbinics, liturgy, responsa, Jewish history, and Hebrew language and literature.

The Bill of Rights

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

George Mason Medallion
Statues and Sculpture over the Door of the Gallery of House Chamber, U.S. Capitol. George Mason Medallion I,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

On December 15, 1791, the new United States of America ratified the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, confirming the fundamental rights of its citizens. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of peaceful assembly and petition. Other amendments guarantee the rights of the people to form a "well-regulated militia," to keep and bear arms, the rights to private property, fair treatment for accused criminals, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from self-incrimination, a speedy and impartial jury trial, and representation by counsel.

The Bill of Rights draws influence and inspiration from the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), and various later efforts in England and America to expand fundamental rights. George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights formed the basis of the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights.

James Madison
James Madison, Fourth President of the United States,
Pendleton's lithography, from painting by Gilbert Stuart,
circa 1828.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Mason (1725-92), a native of Fairfax County, Virginia, championed individual liberties throughout his life. In 1776, he drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a large part of Virginia's state constitution. In 1787, as one of the most vocal members of the Constitutional Convention, Mason expressed great concern that assurances of individual liberties had not been incorporated into the Constitution, and, due to this concern and others, he elected not to sign the document.

The Bill of Rights answered Mason's greatest concern and the concerns of many ratifying states. As a representative in the First Federal Congress, James Madison ushered seventeen amendments to the Constitution through the House of Representatives. These amendments were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789. The first two proposed amendments, concerning the number of constituents for each representative and the compensation of members of Congress, were not ratified. By December 15, 1791, articles three through twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became known as the Bill of Rights.

The application of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution frequently fosters contention. The United States Supreme Court is entrusted with the power to void acts of Congress that it finds to be in conflict with the Constitution or specifically with the Bill of Rights when the constitutionality of the acts arises in litigation. Thus, the amendments are frequently reinterpreted in fresh contexts and changing times.

Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights, one of The Charters of Freedom at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Learn more about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: