Sunday, December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, being the anniversary of the day in 1791 on which the document became an official part of our Constitution. When Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the document, these first ten amendments to the Constitution took effect. For a detailed exploration of the philosophical origins of the Bill of Rights and the political process by which they came to be adopted, visit the exhibit Gordon Lloyd prepared for our site, as a companion to exhibits on the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist-Antifederalist Debates, and the Ratification of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights completed the design for our government given us by the Founders, since it provided additional restraints on the federal government thought to be needed by those who were hesitant to ratify the Constitution.
James Madison, who played a pivotal role in insuring the ratification of the Constitution, also took the lead in calling for the Constitution’s first set of amendments. Madison outlined the need for a Bill of Rights in a speech before the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. We reprint below Professor Christopher Burkett’s comment on Madison’s “Speech on Amendments to the Constitution.” It is part of a new collection of primary documents in American history edited by Burkett and published by the Ashbrook Center, 50 Core Documents: Required Reading for Students, Teachers and Citizens.
In a remarkable act of statesmanship and patriotism, James Madison rose before the House of Representatives and proposed amendments to the Constitution he had been so influential in creating. He urged his fellow Congressmen to consider amendments for reasons of both honor and prudence. Doing so would build the trust of many former Antifederalists who had ratified the Constitution on the promise of future amendments by Federalists, and might induce the people of North Carolina and Rhode Island, who had not yet ratified the Constitution, to rejoin the Union. By putting aside his personal doubts regarding the necessity of amendments, Madison revealed once again his respect for the reasoned opinions of his fellow citizens and his commitment to the cause of free self-government.
Questions for consideration: What reasons does Madison give for introducing these amendments in Congress? What rights would be protected by the amendments? What objections had other individuals made to a bill of rights, and with which objections does Madison agree or disagree?