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The Bill of Rights

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The Bill of Rights

The absence of a Bill of Rights was a key criticism of the original Constitution in 1787-88, and the drafting of one was among the most essential business undertaken by the First Congress in 1789.

This exhibit provides a guide to understanding the origins and meaning of the Bill of Rights; tips on navigating the various sections and Gordon Lloyd’s introduction can be found here.


Where did the interest in a Bill of Rights come from? What are the twists and turns involved in this very American story as distinct from the sweeping story of a rights tradition that reaches back into remote antiquity? What was a bill of rights supposed to accomplish? Who were responsible for putting it there? And why did the Bill of Rights appear as amendments to the original Constitution rather than as a prefatory declaration of rights or be incorporated in the Constitution as a limitation on the powers of the new government?

Document Origins

To what extent can the United States’ Bill of Rights be traced to a traditional understanding of “the rights of Englishmen” and to what extent to an emerging American Mind? 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.


The call for a Bill of Rights began with the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Read what was said in newspaper articles and in state ratification debates about the need (or lack of one) for a Bill of Rights.


Focus in on the immediate period of 1789-1791. We are 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 legislatures? 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?

Major Themes of the Adoption of the Bill of Rights

Explore six different themes related to the Bill of Rights, from the influence of Magna Carta to the development of the two religion clauses of the First Amendment.


Explore the documentary origins of each right contained in the Bill of Rights using a “monster” Excel summary spreadsheet that lists all the documents covered on the website and correlates them with all the rights that appear in Madison’s 39 proposals.


Experience Professor Gordon Lloyd’s 6-episode lecture series given in 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, using this site as the presentation tool throughout. The lectures cover the origins, ratification, and political dimensions of the Bill of Rights, the idea of the Constitution itself as a bill of rights, and a special discussion of the notion of considering James Madison as the “Father of the Bill of Rights.”