OTD in History… September 25, 1789, Congress passes James Madison’s Bill of Rights
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States passes the Bill of Rights authored by James Madison as additional amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing American citizens’ rights and freedoms. According to History.com, the Bill of Rights guaranteed “freedom of speech, press, assembly, and exercise of religion; the right to fair legal procedure and to bear arms; and that powers not delegated to the federal government were reserved for the states and the people.” To ensure the Constitution’s ratification Father of the Constitution James Madison and Convention President George Washington promised Massachusetts, New York, and particularly Virginia a bill of rights would be added to the Constitution. Madison kept that promise and early in the first session of Congress, he introduced a Bill of Rights, which would become the first amendments to the Constitution.
Towards the end of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, Virginia delegate George Mason proposed adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, which Massachusetts’s Elbridge Gerry seconded to create a motion. Since they opposed the Constitution, most of the delegates including Madison believed it was a “delay tactic.” In the end, Mason, Gerry, and Virginia’s Edmund Randolph refused to sign the Constitution, the only delegates present at the end of the convention, who did not sign the document. Historian Jack Rakove in his book, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution claims the lack of a bill of rights, was “the one serious miscalculation the framers made as they looked ahead to the struggle over ratification.” (Rakove, 288)
The anti-Federalist opposing a strong centralized government believed a bill of rights was necessary. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson also believed the bill should be added and wrote Madison, “Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.” Originally, Madison sided with the Federalists and opposed the addition of a bill; he along with the Federalist Papers co-author Alexander Hamilton thought “the constitution is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.” During the ratification process, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York were at an impasse over ratification and only did so with the promise a bill of rights would be added, while North Carolina and Rhode Island waited until the passage of a bill of rights to ratify the Constitution. The Constitution was ratified in June 1788, and the Constitutional Congress certified the ratification on September 13, with the new government commencing March 4, 1789, with the 11 states that ratified the Constitution participating.
Virginian and anti-Federalist Patrick Henry fought with Madison over a bill of rights during the ratification process. In retaliation, Henry prevented Madison from his Senate seat and attempted to prevent him from winning his Congressional district having James Monroe challenge him, Madison won because he promised he would introduce the bill in the first session. Madison did not necessarily believe a bill of rights was necessary but worried it might open up a second Constitutional Convention putting the ratified document in peril of revisions. At his April 30, 1789 inauguration new President Washington urged caution in amending the Constitution. Washington expressed, “Whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question, how far the former can be impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.”
On June 8, 1789, Madison addressed Congress and proposed a Bill of Rights, telling them, “I think we should obtain the confidence of our fellow citizens, in proportion as we fortify the rights of the people against the encroachments of the government.” Madison originally indicated to Congress he would introduce the legislation on May 25 but decided to postpone. Madison looked at the English Magna Carta of 1215 and particularly the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which George Mason wrote in 1776 as inspiration and models to replicate.
The bill Madison proposed was different from the final version Congress passed in September 1789. Originally, Madison proposed 17 amendments and wanted an additional preamble to the Constitution that would have buried “We the People,” and that the additional amendments be integrated with the Constitution as opposed to added in the end. As for the amendments that never made it in, Madison wanted to define clearly the separation of powers between the three branches of government, and the states, only the part about the states made it in, “The powers not delegated by this Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.”
Madison also proposed a different second amendment, which read, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” Additionally, Madison wanted the Bill of Rights to apply to the states not just the federal government. It would take to the 20th century for the Supreme Court to apply the 14th Amendment on “citizenship rights and equal protection under the law” added after the Civil War to the states, and for the states having to be required to abide by the Bill of Rights.
The House worried about Madison’s radical proposals to amend the Constitution, and it took until July 21 for them to agree to consider them. Roger Sherman of Connecticut placated the House by suggesting the amendments go at the end of the document as to not alter the original Constitution. The House reduced the number of amendments and passed the bill on August 24, sending it to a predominately-Federalist Senate. The Senate made further changes parsing it down to 12 amendments and obliterating their application to the states. The Senate passed the Bill of Rights on September 9. On September 21, the House and Senate met in a Conference Committee to resolve the differences between the bills in both Houses, they agreed to the final version on September 24. On September 25, the House and Senate passed in a “joint resolution” the bill of Rights, sending it off to the states on September 28 for ratification. Over two years later on December 15, 1791, Virginia became the tenth state to ratify 10 of the 12 amendments of the Bill of Rights, making it the law.
The Constitutional framers and James Madison made the Bill of Rights possible. Julia A. Wood writing in Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century notes adding the Bill Rights proved how the flexibility of the Constitution’s design to grow with the country and survive its conflicts. Wood explains, “The addition of the bill of rights to the Constitution points out one of the most ingenious accomplishments of the Constitutional Convention. The delegates were awed by the task before them and struggled with the problems of creating a new government very seriously… They also realized that they could not possibly anticipate all of the problems that the government would encounter and so they devised a means of amending the Constitution. This mechanism requires Congress and the states to approve of such an amendment, thus ensuring that as many people as possible have an opportunity to influence such an important measure.”
Historian Gordon S. Wood in his book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 ultimately credits Madison for the addition of a Bill of Rights. Wood indicates, “There is no question that it was Madison’s personal prestige and his dogged persistence that saw the amendments through the Congress. There might have been a federal Constitution without Madison but certainly no Bill of Rights. Madison did not get all he wanted in the form he wanted… Still, when all is said and done the remaining ten amendments — immortalized as the Bill of Rights — were Madison’s.” (Wood, 69–70)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.