The Bill of Rights Goes to the States

On June 8, 1789, less than one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Representative James Madison of Virginia proposed several amendments to the document.

James Madison, undated. (National Archives Identifier 532835)

The amendments were to be interwoven into the text and were, for the most part, selectively taken from the amendments proposed by the states.

They also mostly related to protecting civil liberties rather than changing the structure of the government.

In August, the House debated, reworded, and changed the amendments.

A successful resolution by Roger Sherman of Connecticut made them a separate document, moving them to the end of the Constitution rather than inserted directly into the text.

On August 24 the House passed 17 articles of amendment, and then the Senate took up the matter, making several more changes of their own.

The Senate’s changes included removing text prohibiting Congress from infringing on the rights of conscience, exempting those who are religiously scrupulous from military service, forbidding states from infringing on certain rights, and declaring separation of powers a principle in the Constitution.

Senate Revisions to the Proposed Bill of Rights, page 1, 9/9/1789. (National Archives Identifier: 3535588)
Senate revisions to the proposed Bill of Rights, page 1, 9/9/1789. (National Archives Identifier: 3535588)

On September 25, 1789, with a 2/3 majority, Congress approved a final version—what we now call the Bill of Rights.

Resolution regarding transmittal of the Bill of Rights to the states, 9/24/1789-9/26/1789. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Three days later Congress sent the 12 proposed amendments to the states for ratification.

They included North Carolina and Rhode Island, which had not yet ratified the Constitution.

It took over two years, but finally on December 15, 1791, enough states had ratified 10 of the amendments to make them part of the Constitution.

The engrossed version of the Bill of Rights, signed on September 25, 1789, is on permanent display at the National Archives.

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

You can learn more about the Bill of Rights and the amending process in the National Archives exhibit “Amending America,” which is open in Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition runs through September 4, 2017.

Bill of Rights, 1791post treatment 00306_2003_001
Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 14080)

One thought on “The Bill of Rights Goes to the States

  1. I’ve always thought it interesting that what we now think of as the First Amendment (and thus with an aura of extra-special — primal — importance) was actually the third proposed amendment sent to the states by Congress. The first proposed amendment was on the size of congressional districts. It never received sufficient state support.

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