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The Bill of Rights: An Introduction

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The core of this website is divided into three sections of content, and three sections of supplementary resources.

The objective of the first three parts is to provide 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. Parts 4, 5, and 6 consist of supporting content in the form of tables, summaries, commentaries, a module, an Excel spreadsheet, and paintings.

The main themes of Part 1-3 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.)

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.

Part One: The Origins of the Bill of Rights

Part One: Origins 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: The Ratification of the Constitution

Part Two: Ratification of the Constitution 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: The Politics of the First Congress

Part Three: Politics of the First Congress 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 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? We provide tables and commentary that address these questions.

Part Four: Themes of the Adoption of the Bill of Rights

Part Four: Themes of the Adoption of the Bill of Rights explores 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.

Part Five: Interactive Spreadsheet on the Origins of the Bill of Rights

Part Five: Interactive 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. 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.

Part Six: Gordon Lloyd’s 2012 lectures on the Bill of Rights

Part Six: Multimedia consists of six video lectures by Gordon Lloyd, given in 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, using this site as the presentation tool throughout. The video together 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.”