Freedom of speech,
freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to a
fair and speedy trial–the ringing phrases that inventory
some of Americans' most treasured personal freedoms–were
not initially part of the U.S. Constitution. At the Constitutional
Convention, the proposal to include a bill of rights was considered
and defeated. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution
as the first ten amendments on December 15, 1791.
The fact that the Constitution did not include a bill of
rights to specifically protect Americans' hard-won rights
sparked the most heated debates during the ratification process.
To the Federalists, those who favored the Constitution, a
bill of rights was unnecessary because the Federal Government
was limited in its powers and could not interfere with the
rights of the people or the states; also, most states had
bills of rights. To the Anti-Federalists, those who opposed
the Constitution, the prospect of establishing a strong central
government without an explicit list of rights guaranteed to
the people was unthinkable. Throughout the ratification process,
individuals and state ratification conventions called for
the adoption of a bill of rights.
The First Federal Congress took up the question of a bill
of rights almost immediately. Congress proposed twelve amendments
to the states. Ten of these were added to the Constitution
on December 15, 1791.
The Bill of Rights that is on permanent display here is the
Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 25, 1789,
proposing twelve–not ten–amendments. The first
article, concerning the ratio of constituents to each congressional
representative, was never ratified by the states; the second
article listed, concerning congressional pay, was ratified
in 1992 as the Twenty-seventh Amendment.
|Report of the
Conference Committee, appointed to settle the differences
between the House and Senate versions of the proposed
bill of rights, September 24, 1789 learn
| “In the
Reading Room of an 18th Century New York Coffee House,”
hand-colored engraving (reproduction) after illustration
by Howard Pyle, ca. 1890 learn