The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800

By Carol Sue Humphrey | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 11

The Bill of Rights, 1787–1791

The new government created by the Constitution began operation in March 1789 when Congress met for the first time. George Washington took the oath of office as president in April. Over the next several months, American leaders fleshed out the various parts of the government (the Cabinet, the federal courts, etc.) that had not been fully described in the Constitution.

In the midst of all these discussions, Congressman James Madison of Virginia brought up the issue of amendments to the Constitution. One of the major objections to the Constitution during the ratification debates had been the lack of a Bill of Rights. Several states ratified the Constitution with calls for a Bill of Rights to be added as soon as possible, and many people assumed it would be one of the first orders of business for the new government. When running for the House of Representatives, Madison had promised his constituents that he would work for the adoption of a national Bill of Rights. Thus, he introduced a number of amendments on June 8, 1789. Many members of Congress stated that they had more important things to worry about in getting the government up and running. Madison, however, pushed the issue, believing that too many promises had been made to let the issue of a Bill of Rights be overlooked.

Congress slowly agreed and, finally, on September 25, 1789, sent a list of twelve amendments to the states for their consideration. Ten of the twelve proposed amendments were finally ratified by the required number of states late in 1791. Madison’s home state of Virginia provided the necessary margin for success when it ratified the ten amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

During the time that the Bill of Rights was being discussed and ratified, the newspaper printers did not discuss the proposed amendments in any great detail. They apparently assumed, as Madison had, that the adoption of

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