On This Day

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On This Day: Bill of Rights Proposed to States

September 25, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 25, 1789, the First U.S. Congress passed a set of Constitutional amendments guaranteeing personal rights, and proposed them to the states for ratification.

Bill of Rights Passed

In 1787, to replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation, delegates at the Philadelphia Convention drafted the United States Constitution, which established a stronger federal government.

Many leaders, such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, expressed opposition to the Constitution because they believed that a too-powerful central government could abolish individual rights and establish a tyrannical rule. They demanded that there be a bill of rights that would unambiguously describe the freedoms of the American people.

Five state conventions agreed to ratify the Constitution only on the condition that there would be amendments added immediately. The Constitution was ratified on July 26, 1788; when the First Congress met in the spring of 1789, it immediately went to work on drafting a bill of rights.

Virginia delegate James Madison, who had originally opposed the bill of rights but realized that it was necessary to ensure support for the Constitution, was chosen to draft the amendments. Drawing heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776, Madison drafted 12 amendments to the Constitution that guaranteed rights such as freedom of speech, the rights to bear arms, and the right to a trial by jury.

Madison presented his bill to Congress on June 8, 1789. The House of Representatives divided the 12 amendments into 17 and passed them on Aug. 24, 1789, but the Senate reduced it back to 12. The 12 amendments were passed by Congress on Sept. 25, 1789, and proposed to the states for ratification.


Over the next two years, 10 of the amendments were ratified by the requisite three-quarters majority of the states. The first amendment, concerning the number of U.S. Representatives, was never ratified, and the second, limiting the ability of Congress to raise its own salary, was not ratified for 202 years, becoming the 27th Amendment in 1992.

The 10 ratified amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, went into effect on Dec. 15, 1791.

Debate Over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The main proponents of the Constitution belonged to the Federalist Party, led by New York delegate Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays written by Hamilton, John Jay and Madison, who was not a member of the party, advocated for the passage and ratification of the Constitution.

Hamilton, in Federalist No. 84, laid out the arguments against the bill of rights, calling it “unnecessary” and potentially “dangerous.” He wrote, “They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

The anti-Federalists, those who opposed the strong central government proposed by the Constitution, included Henry, Jefferson, George Mason and Judge Robert Yates, who is believed to have written a series of anti-Federalist essays under the pseudonym “Brutus.”

“Ought not a government, vested with such extensive and indefinite authority. to have been restricted by a declaration of rights? It certainly ought,” wrote Brutus in his Nov. 1, 1787, essay.  “So clear a point is this, that I cannot help suspecting, that persons who attempt to persuade people, that such reservations were less necessary under this constitution than under those of the states, are wilfully endeavouring to deceive, and to lead you into an absolute state of vassalage.”

Key Player: James Madison

Born March 16, 1751, to a wealthy Virginia family, James Madison completed college at Princeton University in two years and, at age 29, became the youngest man in the Continental Congress.

Madison, writes the Miller Center for Public Affairs, “was the most successful and possibly the most influential of all the Founding Fathers.” He is known as the “Father of the Constitution” for his role in the creation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In 1791, he and Thomas Jefferson organized the Democratic-Republican Party, which would dominate federal politics for decades.

He served two terms as Jefferson’s secretary of state before being elected president in 1808. During his two terms, he oversaw an increase of federal power, in part to conduct the War of 1812 against Britain.

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