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The Bill of Rights: How Did it Happen?
Writing the Bill of Rights The amendments James Madison proposed were designed to win support in both houses of Congress and the states. He focused on rights-related amendments, ignoring suggestions that would have structurally changed the government. Opposition to the Constitution Many Americans, persuaded by a pamphlet written by George Mason, opposed the new government.
The Bill of Rights: How Did it Happen?
Writing the Bill of Rights
The amendments James Madison proposed were designed to win support in both houses of Congress and the states. He focused on rights-related amendments, ignoring suggestions that would have structurally changed the government.
Opposition to the Constitution
Many Americans, persuaded by a pamphlet written by George Mason, opposed the new government. Mason was one of three delegates present on the final day of the convention who refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights.
James Madison and other supporters of the Constitution argued that a bill of rights wasn't necessary because - “the government can only exert the powers specified by the Constitution.” But they agreed to consider adding amendments when ratification was in danger in the key state of Massachusetts.
Introducing the Bill of Rights in the First Congress
Few members of the First Congress wanted to make amending the new Constitution a priority. But James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to secure its passage. Madison had come to appreciate the importance voters attached to these protections, the role that enshrining them in the Constitution could have in educating people about their rights, and the chance that adding them might prevent its opponents from making more drastic changes to it.
Ratifying the Bill of Rights
The House passed a joint resolution containing 17 amendments based on Madison’s proposal. The Senate changed the joint resolution to consist of 12 amendments. A joint House and Senate Conference Committee settled remaining disagreements in September. On October 2, 1789, President Washington sent copies of the 12 amendments adopted by Congress to the states. By December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified 10 of these, now known as the “Bill of Rights.”
The Federal Pillars, 1789
The Massachusetts Compromise, in which the states agreed to ratify the Constitution provided the First Congress consider the rights and other amendments it proposed, secured ratification and paved the way for the passage of the Bill of Rights. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Federal Hall, Seat of Congress 1790, by Amos Doolittle
Federal Hall, originally New York’s city hall, served as the first capitol building of the United States. The Bill of Rights was introduced there. Courtesy of the Library of CongressCourtesy of the Library of Congress
Senate Revisions to House Proposed Amendments, 1789
This is a working copy of the Articles of Amendment to be submitted to the State Legislatures. Of the 12 articles submitted, 10 were ratified by the states. National Archives
What Does it Say? How Was it Made?
Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was established in 1791 to guard against an oppressive national government by establishing certain rights.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT ENCYCLOPEDIA
THE FIRST AMENDMENT ENCYCLOPEDIA PRESENTED BY THE JOHN SEIGENTHALER CHAIR OF EXCELLENCE IN FIRST AMENDMENT STUDIES
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Bill of Rights
By Daniel Baracskay (updated February 2018 by John R. Vile)
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The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in order to appease Anti-Federalists who thought the new Constitution did not provide adequate safeguards for rights of the people. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
The Bill of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In response to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, which guided the fledging nation from 1781 to 1798, the country’s leaders convened a convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to amend the Articles, but delegates to the Convention thought such a step would be inadequate and took the more radical one of proposing a new document. From the Virginia and New Jersey Plans, a “Great (Connecticut) Compromise” was reached that resolved some of the factional disputes between the large and small states. The Convention also adopted scores of other compromises in forming each of the three branches of the national government and the relationship between this government and the states.
Bill of Rights was added to Constitution to ensure ratification
When the Convention reported the Constitution to the states for ratification, the nation split between Federalist supporters of the new document and Anti-Federalist opponents, who were especially concerned that it did not, like most state counterparts, have a bill of rights (of the 11 state constitutions in place in the years after independence, 7 had bills of rights). To ensure ratification of the document, the Federalists offered concessions, and the First Congress proposed a Bill of Rights as protection for those fearful of a strong national government. The Bill of Rights came into effect in December 1791, after ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
Federalists and Anti-Federalists argued over new Constitution
The level of support for the new Constitution varied. During the debate over its ratification, the Federalists grounded their support for the document in the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. In late October 1787, the first in a series of 85 essays appeared in print bearing the pen name Publius. These essays, which became known as the Federalist Papers, were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They presented a succinct series of arguments that, even today, are revered in the annals of political theory. The essays addressed the manner in which the new republican government, based on federalism and separation of powers, would guard against the tyranny of interest groups and other threats.
However, the Anti-Federalists were not convinced that these safeguards were adequate. Led by George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Elbridge Gerry, the Anti-Federalists wrote their own essays, basing their arguments on the tyranny of the British monarchy so resented by the 13 original colonies. This faction sought additional protections that would guard against an overly centralized and oppressive national government.
Ratification was a long process
Ratification of the U.S. Constitution was a slow and arduous process. Although the approval of only nine states was needed to ensure the document’s ratification (Article VII), ultimately the support of all 13 states was secured. Thus from the ashes of the Articles of Confederation emerged a federal system with enduring features such as republicanism, separated institutional powers, and a system of checks and balances. The Constitution set forth the institutional structures, players, processes, and procedures for governing the new nation through a series of seven articles.
Despite the seemingly apparent victory achieved in ratifying the Constitution, the founders failed to resolve the continuing debate over limiting the powers of the national government. As Alexander Hamilton remarked in Federalist No. 84, “the most considerable of the remaining objections is, that the plan of the convention contains no bill of rights.” To ease the process toward ratification, supporters such as Revolutionary War hero George Washington had suggested creating a series of guarantees that would ultimately prevent the national government from tampering with certain rights and liberties deemed essential to a democratic form of government.
James Madison composed the Bill of Rights
James Madison, who appears to have been influenced on the subject by Thomas Jefferson, took the lead in the First Congress in composing the Bill of Rights. Although the list of rights and liberties suggested by the former colonies was extensive, Madison narrowed it to 12 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Ten of these amendments became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1791 after securing the approval of the required three-fourths of the states.
The Bill of Rights resolved one of the most glaring deficiencies of the new Constitution — preventing the government’s abuse of individual liberties.
The Bill of Rights (article)
The first ten amendments to the US Constitution guarantee citizens' essential freedoms and rights.
The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.
The Bill of Rights consists of guarantees of civil liberties and checks on state power; it was added in order to convince states to ratify the Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention
By the time the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, it had become clear to many American leaders that a more powerful federal government was necessary in order to effectively deal with the challenges facing the young nation.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government had neither the power to raise taxes nor the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Additionally, there was no established mechanism through which states could adjudicate conflicts. Many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention understood that the Articles of Confederation would need to be supplanted entirely, not merely revised.
To this end, the delegates spent months debating and shaping the scope and contours of a new and more powerful federal government.
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Ratifying the Constitution
The result of the Constitutional Convention was the United States Constitution. The Constitution created a federal government consisting of three separate branches in order to impose checks and balances on the powers of each branch.
The executive branch would be headed by a president, who would be elected.
The legislative branch would be composed of an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house—the House of Representatives. Representation in the House would be based on population—including counting enslaved men and women at the proportion of three to five for the purposes of representation and taxation. Each state would elect two representatives to the Senate.
The judicial branch would consist of a Supreme Court and lower courts to interpret and apply the law.
Not everyone believed the new Constitution was a good idea. A number of individuals who had played important roles in the Revolution, like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, worried that a powerful federal government would inevitably become tyrannical and that the new Constitution would be merely replacing British tyranny with a homegrown variety. They worried that the president would usurp king-like powers and encroach upon the individual rights and freedoms of citizens.
In order for the Constitution to enter into force, it would have to be ratified by at least nine states, but several states threatened to refuse to ratify the document unless it included strong guarantees of individual rights and liberties. To this end, the delegates, led by Virginian James Madison set to work on drafting a list of checks on federal power that would ensure the full exercise of individual liberty.
Portrait of James Madison
Gilbert Stuart, portrait of James Madison, c. 1821. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights consists of 10 amendments that explicitly guarantee certain rights and protections to US citizens by limiting the power of the federal government.
The First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with the freedoms of speech, peaceable assembly, and exercise of religion.
The Second Amendment declares that properly constituted militias are a safeguard of liberty and that the right to bear arms will be protected.
The Third Amendment restricts the quartering of soldiers in private homes—an extremely contentious issue that had led the colonists to war with Great Britain.
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures of private property.
The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments establish a variety of guarantees relating to legal proceedings and criminal justice, including the right to a trial by jury; protection against self-incrimination and double jeopardy, being tried twice for the same offense; the right to due process; prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; and the right to face one’s accuser, obtain legal counsel, and be informed of all criminal charges.
The Ninth Amendment acknowledges that the other eight amendments are not an exhaustive list of all of the rights and protections to which citizens are guaranteed, and the Tenth Amendment declares that any powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are to be left to the states. This reinforced the principle of federalism, or separation of powers, by ensuring that the federal government could not usurp rights and powers that were not explicitly authorized in the Constitution.
First draft of the Bill of Rights
First draft of the Bill of Rights, as proposed in 1789. Image credit: National Archives
The Bill of Rights has proven to be one of the most influential documents in contemporary history, codifying the theory of natural rights, which holds that humans are granted certain freedoms and liberties by God, and that the state should not have the power to usurp or otherwise infringe upon those rights. This was a major departure from previous theories of individual rights, which were granted to citizens by the state or monarch. The Bill of Rights has influenced countless political leaders around the globe since their authorization into force in the United States.