The Constitution – The “Bill of Rights”

The idea for a Bill of Rights was certainly not new.

Documents that specified and guaranteed individual rights and liberty had been around for centuries. They were historical documents and experience that formed the foundation of the United States government, and included:

  • The Magna Carta (1215)
  • The Petition of Right (1628)
  • The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)
  • The English Bill of Rights (1688)
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)

During the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787, delegate Charles Pinckney from South Carolina presented a proposal to include several rights and guarantees into the new Constitution – including “liberty of the press” and a ban on quartering soldiers in private homes.

Pinckney’s proposal was rejected.

The draft of the Constitution of the United States as adopted by the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787 made no mention of a “Bill of Rights.”  

Supporters of the Constitution as approved were called “Federalists.” They advocated a strong national government and believed that the Constitution, as approved, did not need a bill of rights – the states kept any powers not granted to the Federal government.

Opponents of the Constitution as approved were the “Anti-Federalists.” They wanted power to remain with state and local governments and demanded that a bill of rights should be included in the Constitution to place specific limits on government power.

The debate for and against ratification of the Constitution raged throughout the Fall of 1787 and through the spring of 1788. With ratification in serious doubt, the Federalists “blinked” and announced a willingness to include a series of amendments, to be called the “Bill of Rights,” soon after ratification and during the first session of the new Congress.

Thus, the Bill of Rights became a NECESSARY CONDITION for ratification to be assured.

When the first Congress met in 1789, James Madison accepted the task of drafting the amendments – the proposed Bill of Rights – a “nauseous project” in his view.

Ultimately the first Congress adopted ten amendments to the new Constitution and the Bill of Rights became part of our lives.

A large debt of gratitude is owed to the Anti-Federalists – the opponents of the Constitution as adopted in the summer of 1787 – because without them, we would have no Bill of Rights.

Thomas Jefferson, who did not attend the Philadelphia Convention, wrote to James Madison and explained that the omission of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution was a major mistake. “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

After the Bill of Rights had been incorporated into the Constitution as amendments, Jefferson wrote, “There has just been opposition enough” to force adoption of a Bill of Rights, but not to “drain the federal government of its essential energy.”

George Washington nodded in agreement. “They have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and have explained them in so clear and forcible manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

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