The Bill of Rights
On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention adjourned, their work finished. Although we celebrate September 17 as Constitution Day, it didn’t go into effect for nearly another year. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, putting it into effect. Only one state, Rhode Island, initially rejected the Constitution on March 24, 1788 in a popular referendum.
Finally, on May 29, 1790, A Rhode Island convention ratified the Constitution, becoming the last of the 13 to ratify.
The original document was ratified without the Bill of Rights, much to the chagrin of George Mason. He returned home to Gunston Hall a beaten man, but he didn’t give up.
It was George Mason who, in May of 1776, drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was so important that it influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen during the French Revolution, and became enshrined as Article I of the Virginia Constitution.
George Mason wanted a declaration of not just individual rights in the Constitution, but a declaration of states’ rights as well. Because of this, he refused to sign the Constitution, and when he returned home, he was an outspoken critic of the new Constitution without amendment, and opposed ratification as it was written.
Eventually, his constant harping about rights forced Congress to consider a bill of rights. James Madison introduced these amendments to Congress on June 8, 1789, and came out as amendment proposals on September September 25, 1789. They were officially adopted on December 15, 1791.
There were twelve proposed amendments, ten became the Bill of Rights while another became the 27th Amendment in 1992. The final proposal is written thus:
Article the first… After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less [should be more] than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more [should be less] than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.
The two notes above have the words ‘more’ and ‘less’ transcribed. This handwritten note shows how it was intended to be written, but it somehow slipped past Congress without them noticing. It is still pending before the states, with only eleven states having ratified the amendment.
When the Bill of Rights was issued, it included the following preamble. The date given was the date Congress opened the session. Congress was held in New York, due to Washington DC not existing yet.
Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on
Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.
ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.
In the end, George Mason won a partial victory. He got a Bill of Rights for individuals, if not a Bill of Rights for the States.