Bill of Rights

The bill of rights as it was created on September 25, 1789
The bill of rights as it was created on September 25, 1789

Historical Context

The Bill of Rights is the term used for the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The debate over ratifying and drafting the Constitution was bitter and many Americans had actually opposed the new form of government, particularly after a pamphlet written by George Mason was circulated. Mason, an Anti-Federalist, believed any constitution should have a bill of rights; others, like James Madison, disagreed, saying it was unnecessary as the government only had powers as specified by the Constitution.

After the ratification of the state of Massachusetts was put in doubt over the objections of the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists agreed to consider amendments related to a bill of rights. Though James Madison was originally a staunch opponent of the bill, in order to secure the Constitution's ratification and realizing the importance that citizens put on the bill, he put an amendment through Congress. The Senate changed the bill to include 12 amendments rather than 17, and later 10 were passed and ratified: the Bill of Rights.

Famous amendments include the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances", often invoked in debates about free speech, and the Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" always invoked in arguments about gun control.

Document Info

Author(s): US National Archives
Location signed: USA


Related Events

  • 1787-09-12 American statesman George Mason suggests the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution modeled on previous state declarations, but the motion is defeated
  • 1789-06-08 James Madison introduces a proposed Bill of Rights in the US House of Representatives
  • 1789-09-25 US Congress proposes the Bill of Rights
  • 1789-10-02 George Washington transmits the proposed Constitutional amendments (The United States Bill of Rights) to the States for ratification
  • 1789-11-20 New Jersey is 1st state to ratify Bill of Rights
  • 1791-12-15 US Bill of Rights ratified when Virginia gives its approval, becomes amendments 1-10 of the US constitution

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