Late in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, George Mason of Virginia proposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution. Mason was the principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, but he did not persuade the other delegates that the Constitution needed its own bill of rights. As many of the Constitution's supporters explained later during the struggle for ratification, the specific grants of power that the Constitution contained limited the actions of the government and, together with the prohibitions on congressional action, in effect made the Constitution the guarantor of the people's rights and liberties without a bill of rights.
That explanation did not satisfy Mason or the other men who opposed ratification of the Constitution. They feared a too-powerful national government, and they believed that without explicit guarantees of such fundamental liberties as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion the new national government would be a danger to liberty.
In Virginia, after the convention narrowly voted to ratify the Constitution, the opponents of ratification and a number of the men who voted to ratify it, but who also agreed with some of the objections that had been made, proposed a long list of amendments, some of which were intended to reduce the power of the new government and some of which drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the English Bill of Rights for explicit protection of fundamental liberties.
Those debates and objections changed James Madison's mind on the issue. He had not believed that the Constitution required a bill of rights and said so in 1787 and 1788 during the ratification process. But the objections to the Constitution that its opponents raised persuaded him that the addition of a bill of rights would calm the fears of the opponents and give the government under the new Constitution a chance to succeed. Consequently, as a member of the United States House of Representatives in 1789, he drew on the amendments that the Virginia and other state ratification conventions had proposed to introduce the first draft of what became the Bill of Rights. As the amendments worked their ways through the House and the Senate, they took the shape that we now know, the first ten amendments. In the autumn of 1789 Congress submitted them and two other amendments to the state legislatures for ratification.
The Library of Virginia owns one of the twelve surviving original copies of the Bill of Rights. This is the very copy that Congress sent to the Virginia General Assembly for ratification or rejection. Fifteen and a half years after Virginia adopted its own Declaration of Rights, on December 15, 1791, the Commonwealth became the eleventh state to approve the third through twelfth amendments, which thereupon became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known ever after as the Bill of Rights. The second of the amendments proposed in 1789 was ratified in May 1992 and became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from abridging the freedoms of religion, speech, and press and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances; the right to keep and bear arms; the right of the people not to have troops quartered in their homes; the right to protection against unreasonable government searches and seizures; the right to jury trials in civil and criminal cases and of a grand jury in criminal cases; the right to due process of law in court; a prohibition on government taking private property without just compensation; a prohibition on excessive bail and fines and on cruel and unusual punishments; and two amendments defining rights of people and of the states: "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People"; and "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People."
1. How many amendments to the Constitution were sent to the states by Congress for ratification as the Bill of Rights?
2. Who was president of the United States when the Bill of Rights was sent to the states for ratification?
3. How many people signed this copy of the Bill of Rights?
4. Where did Congress meet when the Bill of Rights was drafted?
1. Explore the changes in language found in the last article of the draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the adopted Declaration of Rights and compare that to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
2. Research the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and explain why the convention did not add a bill of rights to the Constitution at that time.
3. Research the ratifications of the Constitution, which occurred in 1787 and 1788, and discuss the reasons why James Madison, who originally opposed the addition of the United States Bill of Rights, changed his mind.
4. Review the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the United States Bill of Rights and discuss the similarities and differences.
5. Read the English Bill of Rights and the American Bill of Rights and identify in the English version the origins of the many provisions found in the American Bill of Rights.
6. Identify the individual rights that were guaranteed in the original United States Constitution before the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
7. Create a new Bill of Rights, with provisions and language appropriate for our times.
8. Discuss the effectiveness of the Bill of Rights in respect to current events, particularly the First Amendment, which protects the right to worship and the freedom of speech and press.
Conley, Patrick T., and John P. Kaminski, eds. The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1992.
Bodenhamer, David J., and James W. Ely, Jr., eds. The Bill of Rights in Modern America: After 200 Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Bowling, Kenneth R. "'A Tub to the Whale': The Founding Fathers and Adoption of the Federal Bill of Rights." Journal of the Early Republic 8 (1988): 223–251.
Veit, Helen E., Kenneth R. Bowling, and Charlene Bangs Bickford, eds. Creating the Bill of Rights: The Documentary Record from the First Federal Congress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Kukla, Jon, ed. The Bill of Rights: A Lively Heritage. Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1987.