When her former professor offered this family lawyer (and self-professed American history nerd) the opportunity to contribute academically to our understanding of the history of American rights, she leapt at the chance.
By Bethany Kirschner, Family Lawyer
I have practiced family law for the last eight years, but there is another interest that has been a part of my life for much longer. I have been an American history nerd since childhood. While my preteen friends had posters of boy bands NSYNC and Backstreet Boys on their bedroom walls, I proudly displayed a poster of George Washington on mine.
My interest in early American history – specifically, the founding – intensified in college when I became a research assistant to Dr. Peter J. Galie, the director of the Political Science department at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. I spent much of my time after classes and during school breaks researching the development of rights in America prior to the adoption of the National Constitution and Bill of Rights, particularly the rights found in the first (Revolutionary Era) state constitutions and declarations of rights.
Before I left New York to attend law school in Virginia in 2007, Dr. Galie promised me we would revisit that research someday.
A History of American Rights Before the Bill of Rights
In the following years, marriage, children, and working as a family law attorney made those college research assistant days a distant memory. Dr. Galie, however, had not forgotten our work. Ten years after making his promise to me, he unexpectedly reached out to ask if I’d like to co-author a book with him and colleague Christopher Bopst on the rights tradition in state constitutions and declarations of rights adopted between 1776 and 1790.
Despite the myriad scholarly works on the national Bill of Rights, there was to date no one-volume work that provided a comprehensive treatment of the early state declarations of rights. I gladly accepted his offer, overjoyed to be able to return to this area of interest. As we divided the work, I was tasked with researching the colonial, revolutionary, and constitutional histories of the four southern colonies/states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Over the next several years I spent many spare hours in University of Richmond’s William Taylor Muse Law Library poring over relevant articles and books. Many more hours were spent drafting, editing, and communicating with my more experienced co-authors, which was a wonderful learning opportunity. In April of 2019 we presented our research at the New York State Political Science Association Conference at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York.
The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights
My portion of the presentation was focused on the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which was the first declaration adopted by a former colony and served as a model for the other newly independent states. I explained how the articles of the Virginia Declaration demonstrate the predominantly communitarian context for understanding rights that was prevalent at the time, a view of rights that is distinct from our modern individual rights focus.
After giving our presentations, we participated in a roundtable discussion with several notable constitutional authors who offered invaluable feedback on our project. We left the conference realizing we had a lot of work still to do, but with a better idea of where we should focus our efforts. By early 2020, we were able to present our publisher, with the final draft of our book. Bills of Rights Before the Bill of Rights: Early State Constitutions and the American Tradition of Rights, 1776-1790 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) was published in late September.
A Sense of Joy and Accomplishment
I cannot adequately describe the sense of joy and accomplishment I felt when I first held our book in my hands: the time, effort, and passion of many years had come to fruition at last. I enjoy the practice of law, but it was an awesome feeling to be able to pursue another interest I love and to contribute academically to our understanding of the history of American rights.
Bethany Kirschner is an Associate Attorney at Woehrle Dahlberg Yao PLLC in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She received her undergraduate degree in Political Science in 2007 from Canisius College, and her law degree from Regent University School of Law in 2010. She lives in Montpelier, Virginia with her husband and four children. www.lawfirmvirginia.com
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