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A November Anniversary Less Remembered

Published in Blog on November 12, 2018 by Warren Wheeler

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We honored our veterans on Sunday, the 100th anniversary of World War I’s end. This Wednesday is a less-known milestone that’s no less deserving of recognition by liberty-loving patriots.

On November 14, 1788, Virginia’s General Assembly became the very first state legislature to seek “a convention of the States” for the purpose of proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In articulating the need to do so, it matter-of-factly coined a phrase that became today’s well-known sobriquet “Convention of States.”

Virginians can be proud their state was the first to invoke the Constitution’s liberty-promoting Article V mechanism for bypassing Washington’s self-interested obstructionists.

They also should be proud the state did so seeking what we know today as our Bill of Rights—the Constitution’s first ten amendments.

In the end that first-ever Convention of States attempt was not needed. Thanks to Virginian James Madison’s inspired leadership, Congress proposed and the states ratified The Bill of Rights, protecting individual liberties like free expression, freedom of conscience and religious practice, and the right to bear arms.

Nevertheless, Virginia’s 1788 application for an Article V Convention of States was an important early precedent that had a long-term salutary effect. That’s because Virginia’s initiative forced the first Congress to grapple with constitutional protections for states’ Article V applications.

Madison, then a Virginia Congressman, weighed in. According to contemporaneous Congressional records, in arguing against referring the application to a committee, he reasoned doing so...

"...would seem to imply that the House had a right to deliberate upon the subject. This he believed was not the case until two-thirds of the State Legislatures concurred in such application, and then it is out of power of Congress to decline complying, the words of the Constitution being express and positive relative to the agency Congress may have in case of applications of this nature…Congress (has) no deliberative power on this occasion."

Madison’s argument carried the day and Virginia’s application was noted for record keeping but not further referred.

More than two centuries later, Madison’s words rebuff those claiming Congress can derail Article V. They are either ignorant or willfully ignore the well-documented history governing employment of Article V’s provisions.

Benefactors of the status quo perpetually seek to stoke voters’ and state legislators’ fears with wild claims about Congressional interference or nonsensical, ahistorical “runaway convention” scenarios.

The truth is we can use Article V exactly as Virginia’s General Assembly sought to do in 1788: to protect citizens against an overreaching federal government.

It’s up to all of us to use the constitutional tool the Framer’s left us for exactly this purpose.

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