The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview
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THE VIRGINIA convention speedily formulated and adopted a bill of rights and constitution, but this alacrity was not emulated by all her sister states, even after the Williamsburg assembly had furnished a bold example. Certain delegates in the Continental Congress had long seen the need for a Declaration of Independence, and pamphleteer Thomas Paine had done his best to persuade the common man that to remain within the British Empire meant abject slavery. By early summer the impatient radicals in Congress could wait no longer. With Jefferson as their main spokesman they took one of the most decisive steps in recorded history.

The Fourth of July manifesto pronounced the ties with England broken, but it did not accord with the usual conception of what constituted a declaration of rights. The Declaration of Independence was an indictment of England's misdeeds, an instrument of propaganda, and the clearest statement of the philosophy behind the American Revolution. It was not, however, a bill of rights, since it provided not a single legal assurance of personal freedom.

After the final break with England, most of the new commonwealths gradually fell into line with the Virginia example. By 1784 the sweep of constitution-making had covered every section of the Republic. In the spring of that year the New Hampshire convention finally proclaimed its bill of rights adopted. With the single exception of New Hampshire, the process had been completed with the Massachusetts Declaration


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