The Story Of A Government That Almost Didn’t Happen

In 1787 our country was in the throes of setting up a strong central government when it suddenly hit a stumbling block.

Many wanted to see the proposed Constitution go down to defeat. Some viewed it as a plot to install a tyrannical government, not unlike that of the British system from which they were newly independent.

The Alarm was triggered not by what they saw, but by what they didn’t see…

Then Came The Bill Of Rights

In 1735, John Peter Zenger was accused of seditious libel for publishing criticism of the Royal Governor of New York in his newspaper. In 1751, citizens of Fairfax County, Va. – before they could hold public office – had to take an oath that they did not hold certain religious beliefs. Ten years later, in Massachusetts, James Otis protested warrants that permitted British customs officials to search any house in their pursuit of suspected smuggler.

The memory of these and other violations of individual rights was vivid as Americans considered establishing a strong central government in 1789. Our newly independent people also drew upon a long English tradition of civil liberties when they insisted that guarantees of basic rights be a part of the new Constitution.

Only a few such rights, however, were included in the document submitted to the states for ratification.

These omissions alarmed a number of prominent Americans. George Mason, a delegate to the Federal Convention and author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, refused to sign the Constitution, telling George Washington:
“There is no declaration of rights.”

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts also dissented, declaring:
“The liberties of America were not secured.”

U.S. Minister to France Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison of his concern about “the omission of a bill of rights… providing clearly… for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, and restriction against monopolies.”

Washington Calls For Constitutional Amendments

When the draft Constitution  was presented to the states for ratification, five states approved it with the recommendation that a bill of rights be added. A sixth, North Carolina, “thought proper neither to ratify nor reject the Constitution” until a bill of rights was issued.

Aware of these reservations, George Washington urged the Congress, in his first inaugural address, to move swiftly to propose amendments showing “a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for public harmony.”

On June 8, 1789, James Madison, a member of the House of Representatives, offered nine articles designed to protect individual liberties.

The articles submitted by Madison closely followed the articles appearing in the Virginia Bill of Rights, which were proposed and drafted by George Mason of Virginia.

Madison’s proposals, along with amendments suggested by the states, were considered by a House committee composed of one member from each of the then 11 states.

On July 28, this Committee of Eleven sent the proposals to the full House for a vote.

Committee Appointed To Settle Differences

The house made only a few changes in content but voted to attach the amendments to the Constitution instead of following Madison’s plan to insert them in the text. On August 24, the House adopted the amendments in the form of 17 articles.

The Senate reduced the number of articles to 12. In doing so, they eliminated articles that would require jury trials in criminal cases and prohibit the states from infringing upon certain rights. The Senate also combined article 3 on freedom of religion with article 4 on freedom of the press and assembly. The senators expanded the preamble and made other changes before adopting their version of the amendments on September 9.

A conference committee was appointed to settle the differences between the two houses. Madison headed the House delegation and Oliver Ellsworth the Senate group.

Right To Trial By Jury Restored

The conference restored the right to trial by jury in criminal prosecutions, made a change dealing with freedom of religion and revised the apportionment formula – the method for determining the number of representatives in a state based on population. Otherwise, the committee followed the Senate version.

The House accepted the committee’s report on September 24, 1789, and  the Senate accepted the next day. September 25, 1789, therefore, is the official date of the first joint resolution proposing amendments to the Constitution.

Several days later, the document was written on parchment and signed by Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, Speaker of the House, and John Adams, Vice President and President of the Senate.

This is the document we now know as the Bill of Rights.

States Asked To Ratify Amendments

The 12 proposed amendments, in the form of signed copies of the joint resolution, were then transmitted to the states by President Washington.

Eleven states made up the Union when Congress proposed amending the Constitution. With the admission of North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont during the ratification period, 11 of the 14 states had to approve the articles in order to reach the three-fourths majority required for ratification.

Two of the original 12 articles fell short of gaining the majority. One article dealt with the number of citizens each member of the House would represent. The other concerned Congressional salaries.

Virginia Casts Deciding Vote

A little over two years later, on December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify articles 3 through 12, which became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The ratification proved that the Constitution’s amending procedure worked.

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the ratification of the amendments to the governors of the states on March 1, 1792.