Documentary History of the Bill of Rights – Ratification of the Constitution

  • Federalist No. 37 (January 11, 1788)
    This is the first of 15 essays by Madison on the “great difficulties” facing the Founders in Philadelphia. Madison informs his readers that “a faultless plan was not to be expected.” He reminds his readers that “experience has instructed us that no skill in the science of government has yet been able to discriminate and define with sufficient certainty, its three great provinces – the legislative, executive, and judiciary.”
  • Federalist No. 51 (February 6, 1788)
    This is the last of 15 essays by Madison on the “great difficulties” facing the Founders in Philadelphia. Madison argues that “in a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.” Madison’s larger argument is that, although difficult, government must be structured so that each branch can check and balance each other thus securing political freedom.
  • Amendments Proposed during the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention (February 6, 1788)
  • Amendments Proposed during the South Carolina Ratifying Convention (May 23, 1788)
  • Amendments Proposed during the New Hampshire Ratifying Convention (June 21, 1788)
  • Bill of Rights and Amendments Proposed during the Virginia Ratifying Convention (June 25, 1788)
  • Federalist No. 84 (July 16, 1788)
    Another distinction to which Federalists appealed was the difference between a monarchy and a republic. In Federalist No. 84, Alexander Hamilton remarks that “bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgements of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince.” No. 84 was the last of the Federalist essays to be published in The New York Packet but the first to deal directly with the Bill of Rights controversy.
  • Bill of Rights and Amendments Proposed during the New York Ratifying Convention (July 26, 1788)
  • The Madison-Jefferson Exchange on Ratification and the Bill of Rights, Part I
    The correspondence between Madison in the United States and Jefferson in Paris is a critical part of the story of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Madison summarized the political problem that was to be solved by the Constitution: “To prevent instability and injustice in the legislation of the States.” What Madison was able to achieve, he explained, was the creation of an extended republic that would secure the civil and religious rights of individuals from the danger of majority faction. Jefferson responded favorably, but was troubled by James Wilson’s argument that a bill of rights was unnecessary. He reminded Madison that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”
  • The following states ratified the Constitution and proposed amendments following Madison’s introduction of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress:



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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