What follows is part of the political and historical context of what the framers thought and argued for. It is crucial also to keep in mind the explicit and implicit philosophical and moral context of the time, the climax of the American Enlightenment, and the following from Leonard Peikoff's The Ominous Parallelssets that context well:
The Americans were political revolutionaries but not ethical revolutionaries. Whatever their partial (and largely implicit) acceptance of the principle of ethical egoism, they remained explicitly within the standard European tradition, avowing their primary allegiance to a moral code stressing philanthropic service and social duty...With this philosophical context, it is easier to interpret the historical context, and identify 1) what the framers thought about rights, 2) why they thought it unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive to include specific protections in the Constitution, and 3) that even if they had written a rock-solid defense of individual rights it would have been a floating abstraction, and not a strong enough protection from undermining by their contradictory premises and the mounting philosophic war that was to soon come from Europe.
The American Enlightenment, like the European, came to an abrupt end. "Its ideas were soon repudiated or corrupted," writes Herbert Schneider, "its plans for the future were buried, and there followed on its heels a thorough and passionate reaction against its ideals and assumptions." It was a reaction prepared for by the Enlightenment itself, by its own philosophic deficiencies, by the seeds it had nourished and allowed to sprout—the seeds of an irrationalism it was not equipped to combat and an altruism it predominantly endorsed.
I found some good historical quotes and notes in Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen.This book details the debates, including quotations from all the members of the Convention and other relevant items from the press and other quarters. The following quotes are from the chapter about the rejection of a Bill of Rights (Ch. 21, pp 244-248):
When the Constitution was published in the newspapers… and the Antifederalists gathered their strength for opposition, nothing created such an uproar as the lack of a bill of rights. What had the Convention been thinking of, to neglect a matter so elementary, so much a part of the heritage of free people?So here we see it put forth that the specific rights need not be enumerated because it was assumed that the Constitution was a strict bound for action that Congress could take, and nothing more. All rights not mentioned were held by individuals. This is essentially the argument given in the 9th amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The Convention’s stand, however, was reasonable, if mistaken. No delegate had been against such rights. Merely they considered the Constitution covered the matter as it stood. And when… Pinckney and Gerry moved for a declaration “that the liberty of the press should be inviolably observed,” Roger Sherman said at once it was unnecessary; the power of Congress did not extend to the press. Seven to four the states again voted no.
There is a fascination in reading the delegates’ later defense of their position. To Alexander Hamilton a bill of rights was more than unnecessary. It would be dangerous, he said. “Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power [in Congress] to do?” Hamilton argued that bills of rights originally were stipulations between kings and their subjects, like Magna Carta, which was “obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John.” Whereas in the American government the people, having surrendered nothing and retained everything, have no need of particular reservations.
The Constitution was, in their mind, was a basic list of instructions for creating the forms of government, and did not require more grand statements that, as Hamilton said, “would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.” Further quoting Bowen:
The new Constitution in [James] Wilson’s view was not a body of fundamental law which would require a statement of natural rights. Rather it was municipal law, positive law… Not a declaration of eternal rights but a code for reference.Liberty is like the sun, and Rights follow naturally as beams of sunshine. They are in the very air, these men said, so why should we list them? The Constitution only describes the very few things that the government may do, and nothing else.
Quite evidently the Federal Convention looked on its work as practical, everyday business; all along they had avoided high-flown phrases about the rights of man. Such rights, John Dickinson was to argue… “must be preserved by soundness of sense on honesty of hears.” Compared with these qualities, what, he demanded, are bills of rights? “Do we want to be reminded that the sun enlightens, warms, invigorates, and cheers” or how horrid it would be, to have his blessed beams intercepted, by our being thrust into mines or dungeons” Liberty is the sun of society, and Rights are the beams.”
That being said, others did see something insidious afoot, or were prescient about the slow creeping of tyranny.
In Portland, Maine, a printer name Thomas Wait… maintained “there was a certain darkness, duplicity and studies ambiguity of expression running through the whole Constitution which renders a bill of rights peculiarly necessary. As it now stands, but very few individuals do or ever will understand it, consequently Congress will be its own interpreter.”To this, Bowen says that arguments like this were only responses to ideas that were too new, and “minds offended by novelty are apt to complain of darkness or ambiguity in matters not yet digested.” Of course, we know that Wait was unfortunately very correct.
One of Patrick Henry’s fellow Virginians provides a good conclusion to this investigation. As Bowen writes:
With charity and much perceptive good sense, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a congressman—no member of the Convention and fiercely anti-Constitutionalist—excused the Convention’s fault concerning a bill of rights. Lee said that when men have long and early understood certain matters as the common concerns of the country, they are apt to suppose these things are understood by others and need not be expressed. … The framers looked upon the Constitution as a bill of rights in itself; all its provisions were for a free people and a people responsible. Why, therefore, enumerate the things that Congress must not do?In the end, they all thought that individual rights were as plain as the nose on your face, and the culture was such that it was inconceivable that there could come a time when the government would not protect them. Americans had made it out of Plato’s cave. Who in their right mind would go back in?
Of course they were wrong, but also, they simply lacked the knowledge to better ground the theory of individual rights in reality. Ayn Rand said (paraphrasing and recalling from memory… if anyone can find a reference please let me know) that she could not have developed her philosophy without the example of the Industrial Revolution. I take this to mean that seeing the example of near free market capitalism helped concretize the value of liberty that previous philosophers were only able to vaguely imagine.
So I come back to my initial assessment that the Founders accomplished something amazing and they deserve our thanks for the amount of freedom and prosperity their works afforded us. But now, armed with more complete knowledge, we need to carry on the fight if we are to fully secure our liberties.