This Day in History, December 15: Ratification of the Bill of Rights

By: Eliana Lindenberg  |  December 18, 2019

By Eliana Lindenberg, Staff Writer

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 brought together some of the brightest political minds of the generation. Men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton gathered to revise the Articles of Confederation, which had been ineffective in getting the new nation on her feet after the war. 

Their goal was to create a central government that would be strong and stable, but still democratic. After a lot of discussion and dissent, the delegates managed to pull together a constitution that satisfied most states. 

Towards the end of the convention, however, the problem of a bill of rights arose. Several delegates were concerned that excluding a bill of rights would be dangerous. They feared that the lack of a bill of rights would leave the individual rights of the people vulnerable to attack from the much stronger national government outlined in the Constitution. Their fellow lawmakers accused them of stalling the Convention, though, and the new Constitution was finalized and signed without a bill of rights. Because of the exclusion, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia did not sign it. 

The new Constitution was then sent to the Congress of the Articles of Confederation, and then to each state’s legislature to be reviewed. Several states proposed amendments upon review, and refused to ratify the Constitution until the amendments were passed. 

There were originally seventeen amendments proposed to the new Constitution. James Madison himself had been originally opposed to the inclusion of a bill of rights — but after seeing the contentious debates over the inclusion of a bill of rights, he feared that a second convention would be called and undo all of the work put into crafting the new Constitution. He came to understand the need for a bill of rights and thus took the task of writing one upon himself. 

Madison had many sources of inspiration for the Bill of Rights. The Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights served as a solid basis. Madison also turned to existing state constitutions for inspiration. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights was especially used for this purpose. Madison’s original version of the Bill of Rights was also based on the requests of the states. One amendment that he did include, however, was not requested by anyone. He included, “No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases.” He also excluded an amendment that was highly requested — an amendment that would make tax assessments voluntary. Madison himself came up with nine amendments to the Constitution to be submitted to Congress. 

Once Madison’s amendments hit Congress, they went through many changes. The House committee in charge of dealing with it made a lot of changes to start with. They eliminated his preamble and added the phrase “freedom of speech, and of the press.” Debate lasted for eleven days in the House. After all of the revisions in the House, seventeen were sent on to the Senate, where further changes were made. The Senate made 26 changes to the draft the House had sent it, and condensed it down to twelve amendments. Then, they were sent to the state legislatures for ratification. 

New Jersey was the first to ratify the Bill of Rights on November 20, 1789. It took until December 15, 1791 for the required eleven states to ratify the Bill of Rights. The first two articles were not ratified at the time– Articles Three through Twelve became the first ten Amendments. Article One remains pending and Article Two was ratified in 1992 to become the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. Once Virginia ratified Articles Three through Twelve, the Bill of Rights became the Law of the Land, and George Washington informed Congress of this fact on January 18, 1792.