U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the ratification of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, significant limitations were placed upon the powers of the federal government and specific rights and freedoms were granted to individuals and to the states.

Summary of Event

The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, U.S. Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. These amendments were added two years after the adoption of the Constitution because of demand from prominent people in the states. Their omission from the original document was not a mistake or an oversight. No such list of rights or privileges was included in the original Constitution because majority opinion held that it was unnecessary to guarantee rights that were already commonly accepted and, in most cases, were already guaranteed by the various state constitutions. [kw]U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified (Dec. 15, 1791) [kw]Ratified, U.S. Bill of Rights Is (Dec. 15, 1791) [kw]Rights Is Ratified, U.S. Bill of (Dec. 15, 1791) [kw]Bill of Rights Is Ratified, U.S. (Dec. 15, 1791) Bill of Rights, U.S. [g]United States;Dec. 15, 1791: U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified[2980] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 15, 1791: U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified[2980] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 15, 1791: U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified[2980] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 15, 1791: U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified[2980] Sherman, Roger Madison, James Mason, George Gerry, Elbridge Lee, Richard Henry Wilson, James

When the Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and sent to the states for ratification, a movement to append a bill of rights immediately was evident. Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Henry, Patrick Patrick Henry, Elbridge Gerry, and many other prominent state leaders announced opposition to the ratification of the Constitution because it contained no bill of rights. There is no doubt that these Antifederalists objected to several different parts of the document. They chose, however, to concentrate their attack on the absence of a bill of rights. They correctly reasoned that this issue would bring them popular support.

A scanned image of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

(Library of Congress)

As the various state conventions met to discuss ratification of the Constitution, it became apparent that the Antifederalists Antifederalists had gathered support for their demands for a bill of rights. The Federalist Party Federalists, who staunchly supported the Constitution, began to show concern and worry. James Madison from Virginia, Hamilton, Alexander Alexander Hamilton from New York, James Wilson from Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman from Connecticut, and many other Federalist leaders stepped up their campaign for a quick ratification. Better organized than the Antifederalists and equipped with power and persuasive arguments favoring ratification, Federalists in all states put party machinery into operation and worked hard to promote their cause. A study of the ratification struggle state by state shows that the Federalists prevailed, but the demand for some kind of a bill of rights remained strong.

Pennsylvania, the second state to ratify the Constitution, did so by a vote of forty-six to twenty-three. However, twenty-one of the opponents met afterward and drew up a manifesto demanding the addition of a bill of rights. In Massachusetts, a close vote favoring ratification was preceded by a heated debate on the question of a bill of rights. A compromise was reached by which the state’s ratification was accompanied by a recommendation for the addition of a bill of rights. Ratification passed narrowly in Virginia (eighty-nine to seventy-nine) and in New York (thirty to twenty-seven), and both states sent with their ratifications strong demands for changes in the Constitution that would protect personal liberties. Several other states followed this pattern, and by the time that Constitution was ratified, it was admitted by all but a few die-hard Federalists that a bill of rights would have to be adopted.

A Federalist in 1788 and a strong supporter of the Constitution from the beginning, James Madison was at first only lukewarm toward a bill of rights, but he assumed leadership of the Antifederalists, who were determined that the first Congress should produce a bill of rights. Although it was believed for many years that Madison himself was the author of the first draft of the Bill of Rights, opinion changed in 1987 as the result of the discovery of a handwritten letter to Madison from Representative Roger Sherman of Connecticut. This manuscript, which was found in the Library of Congress’s collection of Madison’s papers, actually contains the first draft of the Bill of Rights.

The House of Representatives assembled early in April, 1789, and soon turned its attention to the problem of raising money for the operation of the new government. Madison announced that he would introduce the subject of amendments before the congressional session ended, which he did early in June. Up to that point, a wide variety of opinions had been expressed concerning the manner in which a bill of rights could be incorporated into the Constitution. Some had suggested that the body of the Constitution be amended in different places in order to weave a bill of rights into the original document. Others preferred a declaration of rights as a preface. Still others thought one inclusive amendment would solve the problem.

As a result of Madison’s introduction of separate amendments (slightly modified from Sherman’s draft), it was agreed to place the Bill of Rights in a series of amendments. There followed more discussion concerning the subject matter of the amendments. In September, 1789, a conference committee composed of three senators and three representatives worked out a compromise agreement consisting of twelve amendments. The Senate and the House of Representatives both passed these amendments and sent them to the president to be presented to the states for ratification. Two of the twelve amendments were rejected by the states, but the other ten were ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states by December 15, 1791. In March, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced to the governors that these amendments, now known as the Bill of Rights, were in effect.

Significance

The ten amendments that were accepted by the states constitute a powerful charter of liberties, although their effect on many of the most important relations of individuals and government was not potentiated fully until the last third of the twentieth century. It is important to note that the Bill of Rights was designed to limit only the federal government’s powers. Because it did not pertain to state governments, it did not provide protection for people in such domains as slavery, domestic relations, law, discrimination, or state criminal procedures. Only with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, just after the Civil War, did it become possible for courts to apply the Bill of Rights to state and local legal questions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amar, Akhil Reed. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A history of the Bill of Rights, analyzing the Founding Fathers’ intentions in creating the ten amendments. Amar argues that the Bill of Rights was adopted to protect a majority of citizens against a self-interested government; protection of individual rights was not an issue until the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted after the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Broadus, Mitchell, and Louise P. Mitchell. A Biography of the Constitution of the United States: Its Origin, Formation, Adoption, Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Strongly emphasizes the role of public demand in forcing a not altogether enthusiastic Congress to move ahead with the Bill of Rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Merrill. The Making of the American Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1964. Includes a section on the Bill of Rights and a copy of the Virginia amendments of June 27, 1788, which show the kind of rights that were being demanded by the states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Leonard W., and Dennis J. Mahoney. The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Useful essays describing the intent and politics of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Thomas T., ed. The Bill of Rights. 2 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2002. A collection of almost four hundred articles. Volume 1 contains articles on the Bill of Rights, its individual amendments, and issues related to the document. Volume 2 features articles on court cases, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rutland, Robert A. Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955. Complete history of the Bill of Rights. Excellent except for the omission of Roger Sherman’s contribution, which was not known when this book was written.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberger, Andrew D. Freedom and Protection: The Bill of Rights. San Francisco, Calif.: Chandler, 1962. Takes a broader view of the Bill of Rights than most books. Includes in the Bill of Rights the first ten amendments, amendments Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, and Nineteen, and those parts of the original Constitution that deal with personal liberty.

First Continental Congress

American Revolutionary War

Second Continental Congress

Declaration of Independence

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

Judiciary Act

Alien and Sedition Acts

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Elbridge Gerry; Alexander Hamilton; John Jay; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; George Mason; Roger Sherman; George Washington; James Wilson. Bill of Rights, U.S.

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