Anticipating the Bill of Rights in the First Congress

  • The Madison-Jefferson Exchange on Ratification and the Bill of Rights, Part II (August 1788 – March 1789)
    With the ratification of the Constitution secured, Madison promoted the adoption of a bill of rights and the rejection of amendments that would radically alter the new government’s structure and power. He did so for both theoretical and prudential reasons. Madison distanced himself from the argument that a bill of rights may be dangerous as well as unnecessary. Madison overcame the danger of listing rights by declaring that the enumeration “of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The prudential reasons for promoting the Bill of Rights included 1) conciliating “honorable and patriotic” opponents who wanted to “revise” the Constitution by including a bill of rights, and 2) defeating the call for a second convention that would “abolish” the Constitution. He saw the First Congress as the “proper mode” to accomplish the objective of prudential revision. Jefferson agreed that a declaration of rights should be added in a “way which will not endanger the whole frame of the government, or any essential part of it.” He informed Madison that these parchment rights could be protected by an independent judiciary.
  • Excerpt from Washington’s Inaugural Address on the Bill of Rights (April 30, 1789)
    In his first Inaugural Address, George Washington addressed only two particular issues: his compensation, which he declined, and Congress’ “exercise of the occasional power delegated by the fifth article of the Constitution,” the power to amend the Constitution. He asked that, “whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, … a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen … will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question, how far the former can be impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.”



Introductions, the documentary history of each amendment, and major themes about the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

From Political Liberty to Social Freedom

Using artwork, see how the idea of rights has changed throughout American history.

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Documentary Origins and Politics of the Bill of Rights

Interactive chart showing the origins of each of the rights in the Bill of Rights.

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