The Bill of Rights is arguably one of the most important sections of the United States Constitution. It is the first ten amendments made to the original Constitution, which protects individual citizens from a series of abuses from the federal government. However, the Bill of Rights was not accepted outright and without question. It took over two years of debate for the Bill of Rights to be officially included in the final Constitution adopted by Congress in 1788. The majority of the first thirteen states ratified the Constitution and subsequently the Bill of Rights in 1787, 1788, and 1789, although Rhode Island did not agree to ratify it until later in 1790.
When and Why Was the Bill of Rights Written?
The Constitution did not originally include the Bill of Rights found in the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in the same document’s earlier versions. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, which gave the United States its independence from Britain, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. However, this early version of the Constitution proved to be inadequate for governing the young country. Instead of forming a strong central government that united the states, it fostered friendly relations between each state, which largely remained its own separate and independent entity. Without the power to properly unite the states under one governing body, the Articles of Confederation quickly fell by the wayside and emphasized the need for a document with greater authority to keep the states working together as one.
Thus, the first draft of the document, which would eventually become the U.S. Constitution, was proposed to the Second Continental Congress on August 6th, 1787. However, this first draft quickly came under fire by the delegates present; in the initial debates surrounding this draft, the northern and southern states quarreled over the federal government’s authority to regulate trade, particularly the slave trade.
George Mason, a Virginian, was the first to suggest the addition of a Bill of Rights to delineate the individual citizen’s rights. However, his suggestion would go largely ignored for nearly two years.
After three months of debate over the first draft, a more agreeable document was formed by December of 1787. However, for the Constitution to become the official law of the land, at least nine of the thirteen states had to agree to ratify it. After the first five states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut – ratified the new Constitution, the remaining states hesitated to agree to its terms. This was large since it did not include the protection of basic political rights from abuse by the federal government. Thus, the need for a Bill of Rights rose once again.
An agreement was finally reached in February of 1788, stating that a number of the remaining states would agree to ratify the new Constitution only if a Bill of Rights was added. Thus, the final ratification needed to put the Constitution into effect came from New Hampshire on June 21st, 1788, and the Constitution was set to go into effect on March 4th, 1789, officially.
The Bill of Rights, consisting of twelve amendments to the Constitution and drafted by James Madison, was adopted by Congress on September 25th. 1789. The amendments were then sent to the states to be individually ratified, thus signaling their official entry into the Union.
How Was the Bill of Rights Received?
All twelve of the original amendments that President Washington sent to the states were not ultimately agreed upon. Therefore, two additional amendments were also proposed in the final version of the Bill of Rights in addition to the ten amendments that stayed in the final version of the Bill of Rights. These additional amendments included:
- The method through which each state’s number of representatives in the House of Representatives would be determined. According to this amendment, each state’s number of representatives would remain proportionate to the number of citizens in said state. This amendment was intended to make sure that the interests of the whole state would be properly represented and keep the House from being too small and potentially evolving into an oligarchy. Despite the fact that this amendment was not accepted at this stage, the method through which representatives are appointed is still firmly rooted in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3).
- The prohibition of Congress to increase its pay. Instead, to increase the pay of Congress members, there would have to be a vote which would only go into effect during the next Congress. Even though this amendment was not accepted at its proposal, in 1982, university student Gregory Watson discovered that the amendment was not time-sensitive. By raising awareness for this amendment and lobbying state legislatures to ratify it, Watson was able to push the amendment through to become officially ratified as the 27th amendment in 1992, over 200 years after its initial proposal.
Despite the rejection of these two amendments, the remaining ten eventually came to be widely agreed upon by most states. However, Rhode Island continued to hold out against ratifying the Constitution since it did not support federal control of currency, and the compromise reached over the issue of slavery. Upon threats from the federal government to cut ties with Rhode Island and treat it as a separate entity from the Union, Rhode Island finally agreed to ratify the Constitution on May 29th, 1790.
When did all of the States ratify the Bill of Rights?
Each of the original thirteen states ratified the Bill of Rights in the following order:
- Delaware – December 7th, 1787
- Pennsylvania – December 12th, 1787
- New Jersey – December 18th, 1787
- Georgia – January 2nd, 1788
- Connecticut – January 9th, 1788
- Massachusetts – February 6th, 1788
- Maryland – April 28th, 1788
- South Carolina – May 23rd, 1788
- New Hampshire – June 21st, 1788
- Virginia – June 25th, 1788
- New York – July 26th, 1788
- North Carolina – November 21st, 1789
- Rhode Island – May 29th, 1790
After the first thirteen states ratified the Constitution and officially joined the Union, all later states which would later join the Union also had to agree to respect the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.
As you can see, there is a fairly complicated constitutional amendment process.