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Congress Creates the Bill of Rights

by on September 18, 2014

Within the half-billion pages of records in the care of the Center for Legislative Archives, there are some special treasures from the First Congress that show how the ratification of the Constitution necessitated the creation of the Bill of Rights, and how the creation of the Bill of Rights, in turn, completed the Constitution.

Introducing Congress Creates the Bill of Rights, consisting of three elements: an eBook, a mobile app for tablets, and online resources for teachers and students. Each provides a distinct way of exploring how the First Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution in 1789.

The eBook focuses on James Madison’s leadership role in creating the Bill of Rights, effectively completing the U.S.Congress Creates the Bill of Rights eBook Constitution. Starting with the crises facing the nation in the 1780s, the narrative traces the call for constitutional amendments from the state ratification conventions. Through close examination of the featured document, Senate Revisions to the House Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the reader goes inside the First Congress, as Madison and the leaders of rival political factions worked in the House and Senate to formulate amendments to change the recently ratified Constitution.

The eBook is available for download on our website  and available in iTunes and the iBookstore for your iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.

Mobile App
The mobile app is an interactive learning tool for tablets that situates the user in the proposals, debates, and revisions that shaped the Bill of Rights. Its menu-based organization presents a historic overview, a detailed study of the evolving language of each proposed amendment as it was shaped in the House and Senate, a close-up look at essential documents, and opportunities for participation and reflection designed for individual or collaborative exploration.

Close-up on Compromise

The app is available for download on your iPad in the App Store.

Online Resources
The online resources available for teachers and students present questions, lesson ideas, and supporting resources selected to facilitate learning with the app and eBook. Studying how Congress created the Bill of Rights teaches vital lessons about history and the timeless principles of our civic life. They also provide lessons about the history of representative government and will strengthen students’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities in civic life today.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225thAnniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via TumblrTwitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.

Today’s post comes from Sydney Vaile and Marie Pellissier, interns in our Education and Public Programs division.

This summer, Primarily Teaching made its way to Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Washington. DC. Educators in each city searched for primary sources that shared a common theme of Leadership and Legacy in History. The participants searched through the holdings of the National Archives and chose three to five documents each to be scanned, digitized, and published on at the National Archives

We had the privilege of making the documents from all four Primarily Teaching Workshops available online for the first time. We uploaded each document or photograph, making it available for educators to create their very own online activities. During the Washington, DC, workshop, we had the opportunity to meet the participating teachers and librarians and see the end product—presentations of their newly created activities—after a long week of research, scanning, and digitizing!

Each workshop focused on a specific topic within the common theme, so we got to read through almost 150 incredible documents. Chicago and Boston looked at Civil Rights related court cases, Washington, D.C. focused on immigration, and Atlanta studied the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Here are a couple of our personal favorites:

Marie: One of my favorites was a document from the Washington, DC, Primarily Teaching session. A 1905 statement from Margaret Dye Ellis, who spearheaded the movement to have female inspectors at Ellis Island, is about the necessity of women in such positions. She argued that an immigrant woman would be more comfortable speaking to another woman about issues such as pregnancy, and that female inspectors would be more likely to spot girls vulnerable to human trafficking. I found it really fascinating—in an age when women were discouraged from working outside the home, these female inspectors were working in very visible positions. I had never heard of female inspectors on Ellis Island, and I think their contributions are important to remember when thinking about narratives of immigration.

Sydney: One document that stood out from Boston’s Primarily Teaching session was a 1975 guidebook for African-American students. Published by Freedom House, the “how to” booklet provided students with strategies for reacting to the desegregation crisis of the 1970s. Solutions to probable situations such as violating the Boston Code of Discipline, expulsion, and violence were included so that Black students would know how and how not to act around their White counterparts. The idea of attending a segregated school today is mind-blowing, so I took great interest in reading the same instructions as the students did in the 1970s to stay out of trouble in their struggle for freedom.

Working with educators participating in Primarily Teaching allowed us to learn history on a different level. Technology has become more and more important with each passing year. DocsTeach allowed us to see the entire process behind the production of an activity. In a way, the documents came to life, and will be used to impact the rising generation of educators.

Many new primary sources are now available as teaching tools on—alert the children!

An adaptation of this post is featured on FREE, the Federal Registry for Educational Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

Page 1 of the United States ConstitutionSeptember 17 is designated as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The Federal Convention had first convened in May to revise the Articles of Confederation, but the need for an entirely new frame of government became clear. State delegates debated issues such as federalism and representation all through the summer as they drafted the articles of the new Constitution.

The National Archives in Washington, DC, is the permanent home of the United States Constitution. Celebrate and learn more about our Federal Government’s founding document with these seven activities and resources.

Inside the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom1. Visit the Constitution in person at the National Archives Museum any day of the year other than Thanksgiving and December 25. And learn more about the creation and history of the Constitution, and meet America’s Founding Fathers, in the “The Charters of Freedom” online exhibit.

2. Participate in Constitution Day events from the Civics Renewal Network, an alliance of nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations providing free online resources for civics education:

  • Take the Preamble Challenge and join with schools around the country in a reading of the Preamble to the Constitution. Sign up at Ceremony at the Custom House in Salem, Mass.
  • Attend a naturalization ceremony; schools may contact their local federal court. Students can observe or participate by singing the national anthem, leading the Pledge of Allegiance, writing welcome letters to new citizens, or in other ways.
  • Find more Constitution Day Resources, including lesson plans and teaching tools.

3. Explore how the First Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution in 1789 in “Congress Creates the Bill of Rights.” The eBook, mobile app for tablets, and online teaching resources, created by the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives, launch on Constitution Day, September 17, 2014.

Kids at Computer in the Constitution in Action Learning Lab4. Plan a visit to the National Archives to participate in a Constitution-in-Action Learning Lab. School groups, families, and other groups of civic-minded individuals can take on the roles of archivists and researchers completing a very important assignment: providing the President of the United States with real-life examples of our Constitution in action.

5. Help kids understand ideas like checks and balances, separation of powers, amendments, the Bill of Rights, slavery and the Constitution, and more through online activities. Go to the Constitution homepage on DocsTeach is the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

6. Learn about the Constitutional Convention, drafting and ratifying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the three branches of our Federal government, and how the National Archives is preserving our Constitution in a Constitution course on iTunes U.

The Constitution At Work Activity on DocsTeach.org7. Connect primary sources that span the course of American history to the principles found in the Constitution. Play “The Constitution at Work” and match primary sources to articles of the Constitution. Or read “Exploring the United States Constitution,” an eBook that explores the Constitutional roots of the three branches of our government.

Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Dinschel, education specialist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

All National History Day projects have one thing in common—the theme!  This year it’s “Leadership and Legacy.”  The theme is a great place to start formulating a plan for how an NHD project will come together.

Please join us September 9th at 6 PM EST.  Register here. This free webinar is designed with students, teachers, and parents in mind.

First Lady Betty Ford

First Lady Betty Ford Expressing Her Support for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1975—an idea for “Leadership and Legacy”! Find more inspiration around this year’s theme on Facebook with the tag #TeachNHD. (From the White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration).)

Debra Wall, Deputy Archivist of the United States, will lead off.  NHD Programs Manager Lynne O’Hara will introduce participants to the new NHD webpage and this year’s theme.  Carol Buswell from the National Archives in Seattle will explain how to use the online catalog, teacher resources, and student resources from the National Archives—and discuss primary sources that relate to the theme. Dean Smith, an NHD teacher, will discuss how to get an NHD program started and how National History Day can be incorporated into the curriculum.

The White House Historical Association will discuss resources they offer related to the theme.  State of Iowa NHD Coordinator Katie Craven will explain how state coordinators can help new teachers and what to expect from the NHD process from classroom to DC.  Seven-time NHD participant, Andrew Boge, will describe the competition from his point of view as a student.

Webinar Flyer

Download the Flyer (PDF)

Submit your questions via the chat box during the webinar or on Twitter using the hashtag #TeachNHD. Follow @NationalHistory and #TeachNHD for highlights.

Save the dates for other upcoming NHD online programs and find more NHD resources from the National Archives on our National History Day pages.



In April 1789, The First Congress had just begun under the new Constitution.

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 1, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate. Transcript.

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 1, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate. Transcript.

Many Americans felt uncertain about whether the Constitution would be an improvement over the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first government. But some, like the mechanics and manufacturers in New York City who wrote this petition to Congress, were thrilled to have a new government that was intended to address the many problems that arose under the Articles. For Constitution Day on September 17, your students can get a sense of the economic problems that existed under the Articles of Confederation by reading this petition from citizens who were directly—and negatively—affected by them. The petitioners explained the economic problems they faced under the Articles, and then expressed their hope and confidence that the new Federal Congress would quickly address them.

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 2, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 2, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate

Direct your students to closely read the eighteenth century language to identify the petitioners’ concerns. At the beginning of the petition, the New Yorkers described their elation at the success of the Revolution: “They contemplated this event as the point at which a happy era was to commence, and as the source whence a new system of blessings should spring.” But they quickly realized that the central government under the Articles was too weak to prevent Great Britain from dominating trade. Despite America’s immense resources, attempts at manufacturing new items were hampered by lower British prices. The Articles gave the central government no power to tax the British imports, and the manufacturers in New York and elsewhere discovered that they could not compete: “They soon perceived with the deepest regret, that their prospects of improving wealth were blasted by a system of commercial usurpation, originating in prejudices and fostered by a feeble government.”

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 2, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate

Petition of mechanics and manufacturers of the City of New York, page 3, April 18, 1789; Records of the U.S. Senate

The petitioners believed that they could achieve commercial success if the government could tax imports to make their products comparable in price: “Wearied by their fruitless exertions, your Petitioners have long looked forward with anxiety for the establishment of a government which would have power to check the growing evil, and extend a protecting hand to the interests of commerce and the arts.” The new Constitution allowed them to feel optimistic about their chances for future economic success: “Such a government is now established. On the promulgation of the Constitution, just now commencing its operations, your Petitioners discovered in its principles the remedy which they had so long and so earnestly desired.” The petitioners then stated to Congress their confidence that it would act to resolve the problem they had described: “To your Honorable Body the Mechanics and Manufacturers of New York look up with confidence, convinced, that, as the united voice of America has furnished you with the means, so your knowledge of our common wants has given you the spirit to unbind our fetters and rescue our country from disgrace and ruin.”

The petitioners were correct to be confident in the new government—the second act passed by the First Congress was for the taxation of imports. (The first act was for an oath of office.) This act answered the New Yorkers call, and established support for a government strong enough to protect its own business.


The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225thAnniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via TumblrTwitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.