Although the original Constitution is a remarkable achievement, it is the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution that so many cherish most about the document. And for that they have the Anti-Federalists – especially George Mason – to thank given that these men pushed hard for specific enumeration of protected rights despite opposition by Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton.
Institutions can be mechanisms for a particular political culture to become “sticky.” In the case of the Bill of Rights, ideals that existed at one time became embedded in the state’s core document, thus making them and laws rooted in those ideals difficult (but not impossible) to excise through the political process even when the political culture that supported those ideals and laws had withered. Institutions such as these also have a feedback effect on our political culture. In short, culture can be self-replicating by generating institutions that are educative of a certain vision of the good and that create interested constituencies to defend and propagate that vision.
Given some of the enduring features of America’s political culture*, the country wouldn’t be a completely different place minus the Bill of Rights. However, the Bill of Rights almost certainly provided a bulwark that has helped defend that older vision of the good (in favor of protecting individual rights) against state encroachment at the behest of interested minorities or tyrannical majorities. We have a long way to go to reclaim the so-called “Constitution in Exile” or “Lost Constitution” but things like the Bill of Rights have meant we have a lot less far to travel to do so. On this Constitution Day, thanks to George Mason and so many others of the Founding generation that resisted the powerful arguments of Hamilton et al.
* One could argue that they might not have been so enduring without the educative effects of the Bill of Rights, but I think this gives institutions too much independent power despite what I’ve noted.