The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

The Making of the Bill of Rights

Ratifying the Ten Amendments that became the Bill of Rights

Opposition to the Bill of Rights Dwindles

The amendments proposed by Congress were largely welcomed by the states, but they did have many detractors. Once again, the severest criticism of the amendments pertained to what was missing. Virginia’s two senators had both been Antifederalist supporters of substantial changes in the Constitution. When they submitted the proposed amendments to Virginia’s governor, they acknowledged that “it is with grief that we now send forward propositions inadequate to the purpose of real and substantial Amendments, and so far short” of Virginia’s wishes. They likewise assured Virginia’s Speaker of the House “that nothing on our part has been omitted to procure the success of those Radical Amendments” that had been recommended by their state. Having failed in their exertions, they could only anticipate with dread “the necessary tendency to consolidated Empire” if the Constitution were not “further Amended.” Its opponents in Virginia’s legislature managed to delay approval of the Bill of Rights, but the tide had definitely turned against the Antifederalists.

By and large, the United States had learned to embrace its new Constitution, and the proposed amendments were warmly received by the states. James Madison wrote to President Washington that, “as far as I can gather, the great bulk of the late opponents are entirely at rest.” He predicted that, if the delaying tactics of Virginia’s Antifederalists were construed by the public as a way to reignite “the war against the General Government, I am of opinion the experiment will recoil on the authors.”

The United States Bill of Rights was adopted on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify all but the first two amendments proposed by Congress. What had been listed as the “1st Amendment” was ratified by many states, but in the end, it was Congress that decided how to adjust representation in light of the changing demographics in the United States. The amendment relating to congressional salaries languished for two centuries, but was eventually resurrected. Interestingly, unless the Congress specifies time restrictions when it proposes amendments to the states, they never go away; they remain as potential additions to the Constitution whenever three-fourths of the states approve them. What was submitted to the states as the “2nd Amendment” in 1789 was adopted as the 27th Amendment in 1992. Were it not for that lag in state support, the 27th Amendment would today be considered as part of our Bill of Rights.

Becoming the Bill of Rights

Redefining Bills of Rights

What is perhaps most interesting about the history of America’s Bill of Rights is that, for a long time, no one called it a bill of rights. That appellation was not in wide circulation until after the Civil War. There were qualities about these ten amendments that made them different from what Americans had come to expect in a bill of rights. For one thing, they were appended to the back of the Constitution, instead of being prefixed to the beginning. Second, they had no hortatory statements about the rights of man and the purpose of government (something that was a part of Madison’s original proposal but which the House rejected). And finally, some of the provisions in these ten amendments—particularly the 9th and 10th—were entirely new, and did not seem to match people’s conceptions of what a bill of rights ought to be. Be that as it may, these ten amendments have since become the gold standard for bills of rights in American states ever since. Indeed, they have served as a model for the entire world.