Introduction to this Web Site

The website is divided into three parts with the objective of providing access to 1) The Documentary History of the Bill of Rights, 2) The Federalist-Antifederalist Debate over the Bill of Rights, and 3) The Politics of the Bill of Rights. Access is provided in the form of tables, summaries, commentaries, a module, an Excel spreadsheet, and paintings. The main themes are 1) to portray the seemingly timeless quality of the Bill of Rights which reaches back into remote antiquity from the Magna Carta through the English and Colonial periods and into the Revolutionary era, 2) how the issue of the absence of a formal bill of rights in the Constitution had an impact on the adoption of the Constitution, and 3) to show the politics of give and take in the First Congress that was central to the creation and adoption of the United States Bill of Rights. The Framers of the Bill of Rights signed the Amended Constitution after nearly four months of discontinuous discussion in the First Congress in New York on September 25, 1789. (Two years earlier, the Framers of the Constitution signed that document after 88 days of continuous debate at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787.)

The website begins with a Comprehensive Identification Table listing the first Ten Amendments to the United States Constitution. These are commonly known as the United States Bill of Rights. There are actually 26 rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. For example, the two religion clauses, the two expression clauses, and the two associations clauses are enumerated in the First Amendment. The right to keep and bear arms clause is located in the Second Amendment and so on until we reach the enumeration of powers clause — the 26th and last on the list — in the Tenth Amendment. Click on each of these 26 rights and the documentary origins of each will appear. For example, the documentary origins of Religion Clauses One can be found in four state constitutions and four state ratifying conventions.

Part One covers the documentary origins of the Bill of Rights in more detail. There are tables and commentaries that focus on identifying how often, for example, the due process clause of the English and Colonial heritage makes its way into the United States Bill of Rights compared with the more homegrown natural rights tradition inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Part One encourages the reader to explore the following questions: What part of the U. S. Bill of Rights can be traced to “the rights of Englishmen” tradition and what part to an emerging American Mind? Part One reflects and builds on the traditional way that the Bill of Rights is usually viewed, namely, tracing the emergence of rights over time and locating these rights in various important documents from the Magna Carta through the Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary period of American History.

Part Two focuses on the in-doors and out-of-doors debates that occurred during the ratifying period. In the former, particular attention is given to the Virginia and New York Ratifying Conventions where the call for a bill of rights was separated from a call to amend the Constitution. In the out-of-doors debate, Brutus and other Antifederalist writers challenged the claim by James Wilson and The Federalist that a bill of rights was unnecessary and dangerous. We have also included four letters from Madison to Jefferson and three letters from Jefferson to Madison.

Part Three turns from the documentary record, compiled over 500 years, and the Federalist-Antifederalist debate over the adoption of the Constitution, to the more immediate period of 1787-1791. This period focuses on the introduction and adoption of the United States Bill of Rights during two distinct phases; a) the in-doors and out-of-doors debates that occurred during the ratifying period and b) the debates and decisions in the First Congress. We trace the fate of Madison’s original 39 Proposals, drawn heavily from the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and explained in his June 8, 1789 speech through several stages: a) the June Select Committee Report; b) The two week debate between August in the House; c) The House Passage of 17 Amendments on August 24; d) the 12 Amendments passed by the Senate on September 9; e) the Conference Committee agreement and approval by both branches on September 25; and f) the final ratification of 10 of the 12 Amendments by the state legislatures on December 25, 1791.

The House kept a Journal of Debates, the Senate decided to only record its decisions. Unfortunately, there is no record available of the discussions surrounding the adoption of the United States Bill of Rights in any of the state legislatures between 1789 and 1791.

Part Three is particularly interested in exploring the following three questions: 1) From what sources did Madison draw on to assemble his 39 Proposals for a Bill of Rights? Were they from the English and Colonial Tradition or more, say, from the ratifying conventions? 2) Why and how were they reduced to 26? Were there any significant changes as Madison’s Proposals moved first through the House and then the Senate and on to the state ratifying conventions? 3) Why did the United States Bill of Rights appear as Ten Amendments to the Unites States Constitution rather than as a prefatory Declaration of Rights or embedded in the body of the Constitution? We provide tables and commentary that address these questions.

Finally, the website features 1) a “monster” Excel summary spreadsheet that shows the documentary and political origin of each of the 39 Madisonian rights along with 2) an interactive module that combines the Documentary Origins and the Politics of the Bill of Rights. The Excel spreadsheet lists all the documents covered on the website and correlates them with all the rights that appear in Madison’s 39 proposals. The module comes with a users guide. Highlight a specific right and the module will indicate where that enumerated right appears in various particular documents. Highlight a document and the module will indicate what rights appear in the highlighted document.



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.

View Feature

Documentary Origins and Politics of the Bill of Rights

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

View Interactive is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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