The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, were sent to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. This came two years after the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
The concepts expressed in the Bill of Rights are based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Magna Carta (1215), and some of the constitutions of the existing states.
Why did it take so long for the Bill of Rights to be created when the Bill of Rights was initially mentioned at the Constitutional Convention? There had been three opposition delegates at the Convention that wanted jury trials for civil matters, not civil trials. When the Convention agreed, the delegates then insisted on a Bill of Rights being added to the Constitution. After having already spent four months writing the Constitution, other delegates viewed the request as a delaying tactic and refused, in favor of returning home.
The anti-Federalists used the lack of a Bill of Rights as a reason for states not to ratify the Constitution. Most delegates believed individual rights were protected by the states. They didn’t see a need to include them in the Constitution because there was no authorization for rights to be taken away by the federal government.
The Bill of Rights defines limitations on the power of the federal government. The document was written by James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” at the request of several states that felt individual liberties needed more protection in the Constitution.
As specified in the Constitution, all proposed amendments must be approved by the House and Senate before being sent to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of the states must ratify an amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.
The House originally approved 17 of 20 proposed amendments that were sent to the Senate. James Madison submitted nine amendments on June 8, 1789, seven of which ultimately became part of the 10 Bill of Rights. The Senate subsequently approved 12 of the 17 amendments. On September 25, 1789, those amendments were sent to the states for ratification. Ten of the 12 amendments were ratified, articles three through 12, with Virginia being the last state to ratify on December 15, 1791. These 10 ratified amendments became the Bill of Rights.
The remaining two articles not ratified did not have time limit clauses for ratification. That means they remain pending until three-fourths of the states have ratified them. On May 7, 1992, Article Two was ratified as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution., approximately 202 years after it was sent to the states for ratification. Article One is still pending in the states.
Madison’s amendments would have given some of the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states, but the final version only applied to the federal government. Following ratification of the 14th Amendment on July 9, 1868, the Bill of Rights was gradually applied to government at the state and local levels.
Madison viewed the Bill of Rights more as politically prudent than as a necessity. He submitted amendments in the hope of preventing a second constitutional convention that could undo everything that had been accomplished at the first convention in 1787, and create a new government. Members of the House of Representatives that were Federalists believed that amending the Constitution could give the impression of an unstable government since it had only been a couple of years since the Constitution was ratified.
Congress debated the amendments for approximately two weeks. Madison wanted to spread the amendments throughout the Constitution, but a congressman convinced the House to vote to place the amendments at the end of the Constitution, so it would “remain inviolate.” A surprising result of the process was that many members of Congress changed their original opinions of the Bill of Rights. Many Federalists supported the Bill of Rights, while many anti-Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights. Some of the anti-Federalists were upset that direct taxation and the federal judiciary were not affected by any of the amendments.
Madison’s continued involvement in getting the Bill of Rights through Congress is viewed as the only reason we have the Bill of Rights today. According to a historian, “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.”
The Bill of Rights was adopted on March 1, 1792, after being certified by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.