Amending America: Why a Bill of Rights?

U.S. National Archives

A National Archives Exhibit, part of the Amending America Initiative

“A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against any government on earth, general or particular, and what no government should refuse, or rest on inference.”

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787

Five days before the Constitutional Convention ended, George Mason of Virginia proposed adding a bill of rights. But after a short debate, the state delegations voted down the motion, 0-10. 

That became a problem during the ratification process.

Supporters of the Constitution, the Federalists, thought a bill of rights was unnecessary and even dangerous. The authors of The Federalist Papers, including James Madison, argued for ratification of the Constitution without a bill of rights. They thought no list of rights could be complete, therefore it was best to make no list at all.

The omission of a bill of rights proved to be a mistake almost fatal to the Constitution. New York and several other states agreed to ratify with the promise that the First Congress would add rights to the Constitution through the amendment process. These states might have rejected the Constitution without the promise of a future bill of rights.

"And the Convention do, in the name and behalf of the people of the state of New York, enjoin it upon their representatives in Congress to exert all their influence, and use all reasonable means, to obtain a ratification of the following amendments to the said Constitution, in the manner prescribed therein; and in all laws to be passed by the Congress, in the mean time, to conform to the spirit of the said amendments, as far as the Constitution will admit."

The First Congress included a preamble to the Bill of Rights to explain why the amendments were needed. Declaring that they were a response to the demand for amendments from the state ratifying conventions, the preamble states that Congress proposed them “to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers” and to extend “the ground of public confidence in the government.”

The Ones that Failed...

These motions suggested additional amendments during debate in the Senate. They came from state ratifying conventions, as did most of the amendments proposed by James Madison in the House of Representatives.

Motion C was proposed again by Congress in 1810, but wasn't ratified. It would have denied public office to anyone who accepted a "title of nobility" from a king.

The Senate reworked the amendment language passed by the House of Representatives. Their marked-up draft spilled the most ink on the Third and Fourth Articles, which were combined to form the First Amendment. It protects freedom of religion, speech, and press, and the right to assemble and petition.

The Bill of Rights became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution when Virginia ratified them on December 15, 1791. Of the 14 states in the Union, Virginia was the 11th to ratify, thus providing the constitutionally required bar of three-quarters of the states needed for ratification. Since 1941, December 15 has been celebrated as Bill of Rights Day.

This online exhibit was created under the direction of Lisa Royse, Director of the Museum, and Jim Gardner, the Executive for Presidential Libraries, Legislative Archives, and Museum Programs. The exhibition and this online exhibit would not have been possible without the combined efforts and expertise of many National Archives staff.

Exhibition in Washington, D.C. presented in part by The National Archives Foundation, AT&T, HISTORY®, and The Lawrence O'Brien Family.

Credits: Story

Co-Curator — Christine Blackerby, Education and Public Outreach Specialist, Center for Legislative Archives
Co-Curator — Jennifer Johnson, Curator, Exhibits Division
Amending America — http://archives.gov/amending-america/
German Translator — Craig Ellefson, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Traditional Mandarin Translator — Katherine Chin, Education and Public Programs

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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