Not long after the nation’s First Congress achieved its first quorum on April 1, 1789, James Madison tried to arrange an early date to address the subject of a bill of rights. On May 4, he gave the House notice that, while he understood that many other pressing matters needed to take precedence, he intended to bring the matter forward on May 25. Other business made that date impossible, and his proposal was postponed.
Madison finally succeeded in commanding the attention of the House on June 8, when he restated his intention to formally introduce a proposal for amendments to the Constitution. This news was greeted by a succession of speakers arguing that such a discussion was premature. James Jackson of Georgia protested that “we ought not to be in a hurry” with amendments; only experience could suggest which ones were really necessary. Aedanus Burke agreed that “this was not the proper time to bring them forward. Among the most strenuous objections to Madison’s timing, for example, was that Congress had more urgent business: it first needed to establish a reliable stream of revenue.
Others pointed out that the clamor for amending the Constitution was hardly universal. Only five of the eleven states that had ratified the Constitution had requested that amendments be added. Representatives from Georgia and Delaware noted that their own states had unanimously approved the existing Constitution, and Connecticut’s Roger Sherman reminded the House that his state had “adopted this system by a very great majority.” These states wished Congress to attend to those matters that the Constitution, as it had been adopted, actually charged them with undertaking.
Plunging ahead in spite of almost uniform opposition in the House, Madison formally proposed his bill of rights on July 21, 1789. In the lengthy speech he delivered to a mostly hostile crowd, he gave closely reasoned arguments why a bill of rights was appropriate to this Constitution and why the House should take up the matter without delay. Many of these arguments were derived from his correspondence with Jefferson. In addition, Madison asserted—on four separate occasions that day—that he considered that it was his duty to bring forward these amendments at an early date.
Nearly every member who rose to reply to Madison’s proposal spoke against it. Either it was wrong in itself, or brought forward at the wrong time, or brought about in the wrong way. Those who wanted to hurry the business or sweep it aside suggested submitting Madison’s proposal to a special committee. The committee would consider the matter separately and then make a report to the whole House. Several members intimated to Madison that, by merely bringing the matter forward, or passing it off to a select committee, he had discharged his duty. Now he could give it a rest.