Continuing our celebration of the 225th Anniversary of the First Congress, the National Archives is displaying a draft of the Bill of Rights from August 12 to September 11, 2014, in the East Rotunda Gallery.
During the 1787–1788 Constitutional ratification process, opponents criticized the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. They argued that the Constitution should include one, because without it a strong central government would trample individuals’ liberties and freedoms.
As states debated whether to ratify the Constitution or not, two kinds of amendments emerged: rights-related amendments (amendments intended to protect individuals) and structural amendments (amendments intended to fundamentally alter the structure of the new government).
In the end, enough states supported the Constitution without amendments that it was ratified without changes. However, the effort to amend the Constitution carried over into the first Federal elections. Anti-Federalists—those who opposed the Constitution—pushed to elect pro-amendment members to the First Federal Congress.
This was especially true in Virginia, a state whose ratification convention proposed 20 amendments and a separate bill of rights to the Constitution.
In one Virginia House race, James Madison—who opposed amendments—faced James Monroe—who supported them. Because Virginia had such strong anti-Federalist sentiments, Madison softened his stand against Constitutional amendments, which helped him win the election.
As the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison had a vested interest in protecting the Constitution from drastic alterations. When the First Congress convened in 1789, Madison, who originally opposed altering the Constitution, became the leading proponent of a bill of rights, thus allowing him to guide the drafting of new amendments.
That June, Madison proposed a series of amendments to the newly ratified Constitution. Most of Madison’s amendments were rights-related, and he chose to insert them directly into the Constitution’s existing text.
In the summer of 1789 the House of Representatives debated Madison’s proposals and made several changes.
During the debate, Roger Sherman of Connecticut made one notable suggestion: adding the amendments to the end of the Constitution, rather than working them into the existing text. The House agreed and made the change, resulting in the enumerated list of amendments we are familiar with today.
On August 24 the House passed 17 articles of amendment, and then the Senate took up the matter, making several alterations and consolidations of their own.
The Senate’s changes included removing text prohibiting Congress from infringing on the rights of conscience, exempting those who are religiously scrupulous from military service, forbidding states from infringing on certain rights, and declaring separation of powers a principle in the Constitution.
Ultimately, Congress forwarded to the states 12 articles of amendment. Ten of them—articles 3 through 12—were subsequently ratified and became the Bill of Rights in 1791.