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Primary Documents in American History

The Bill of Rights

Portrait of James Madison.
Portrait of James Madison.
Philada. (Philadelphia) : W.H. Morgan, [between 1809 and 1817]
Prints & Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number:
LC-USZ62-16960 (b&w film copy neg.)

On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States proposed to the state legislatures twelve amendments to the Constitution. The first two, concerning the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified.* Articles three through twelve, known as the Bill of Rights, became the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution and contained guarantees of essential rights and liberties omitted in the crafting of the original document.

*Note: The original second amendment proposed by the First Federal Congress dealt with the compensation of members of Congress. Although rejected at the time, it was eventually ratified on May 7, 1992, as the 27th amendment.

Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography

Digital Collections

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

On June 8, 1789, James Madison introduced his proposed amendments to the Constitution, which would eventually become known as the Bill of Rights.

Debate in the House of Representatives related to the proposed amendments to the Constitution can be located in the Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, on the following dates in 1789:

*Note: There is no Senate debate because the Senate met in secret at the time. The Senate did not open its doors to the public until 1795.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures can be found in the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

Information on ratification of the first ten amendments to the Constitution by the various state legislatures is available in the appendix to the Annals of Congress, First Congress.

The Letters of Delegates to Congress contains a letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson from October 17, 1788, that reveals Madison's views on the need for and role of a Bill of Rights.

An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

Contains a copy of seventeen proposed amendments to the Constitution passed by the House of Representatives on August 24, 1789. These amendments were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789.

Includes a printed version of the Bill of Rights from 1950.

Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789

Presents a copy of the twelve amendments to the Constitution as passed by Congress on September 25, 1789.

Browse by subject in this collection to locate additional documents related to the Bill of Rights.

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

Contains a letter from Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, April 28, 1788 in which he discusses the prospects for ratification of the Constitution and the need for a Bill of Rights.

The James Madison Papers

Includes James Madison's notes for his speech on the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Also contains a letter written to George Washington on December 5, 1789, in which Madison discussed the political situation in the state of Virginia as it related to the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Search Madison's Papers to find additional material related to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson received a copy of the Constitution in November, 1787, while living in France. Beginning on the second page of a letter to James Madison dated December 20, 1787, Jefferson expressed his opinions on the new Constitution, including his belief that a Bill of Rights was needed. He replied to Madison's letter of October 17, 1788 (above), on March 15, 1789.

Words and Deeds in American History

George Washington's first inaugural address called for constitutional amendments to satisfy citizen demands for a Bill of Rights.

America's Library

Jump Back in Time: The New United States of America Adopted the Bill of Rights, December 15, 1791

Exhibitions

American Treasures of the Library of Congress - Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights

George Mason, of Fairfax County, Virginia, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, on which the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are partially modeled. Mason refused to support the original Constitution because it failed to protect essential liberties. This document was also used by the Marquis de Lafayette in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

American Treasures of the Library of Congress - Madison's Copy of the Proposed
Bill of Rights

In response to the demands of the Antifederalists for amendments guaranteeing individual rights, James Madison drafted twelve amendments to the Constitution. Seen here in one of only two known copies of the preliminary printing, these amendments were closely modeled on Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights. Articles three through twelve were ratified by the required number of states in December 1791 and became known as the Bill of Rights.

Creating the United States: Bill of Rights

This online exhibition offers insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self–governing country. The exhibition includes a copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution (Bill of Rights) prepared under the direction of John Beckley, clerk of the House, which were sent to President George Washington on September 25, 1789, for dispersal to the states for ratification.

Madison's Treasures

The documents presented in this exhibition are among the most significant items in the Library of Congress' James Madison collection, the largest single collection of original Madison documents in existence. The majority of these documents relate to two seminal events in which Madison played a major role: the drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States (1787-8) and the introduction (1789) in the First Federal Congress of the amendments that became the Bill of Rights.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

Explores the role religion played in the founding of the American colonies, in the shaping of early American life and politics, and in forming the American Republic. Includes a section entitled Religion and the Federal Government, which discusses references to religion and the Bill of Rights.

Today in History

September 17, 1787

Members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the Constitution on September 17, 1787.

October 27, 1787

Known as the Federalist Papers, the first in a series of eighty-five essays by "Publius," the pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, appeared in the New York Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.

December 15, 1791

The new United States of America adopted the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, confirming the fundamental rights of its citizens on December 15, 1791.

Link disclaimerExternal Web Sites

Charters of Freedom, Bill of Rights, National Archives and Records Administration

Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, Government Printing Office

The Founders' Constitution, University of Chicago Press and the Liberty Fund

Interactive Constitution, National Constitution Center

Our Documents, Bill of Rights, National Archives and Records Administration

Selected Bibliography

Cogan, Neil H., ed. The Complete Bill of Rights: The Drafts, Debates, Sources, and Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.[Catalog Record]

Conley, Patrick, and John P. Kaminski, eds. The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1992. [Catalog Record]

Hickock, Eugene W., Jr. The Bill of Rights: Original Meaning and Current Understanding. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.[Catalog Record]

Labunski, Richard E. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [Catalog Record]

Lewis, Thomas T., ed. The Bill of Rights. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2002. [Catalog Record]

Veit, Helen E., Kenneth R. Bowling, and Charlene Bangs Bickford, eds. Creating the Bill of Rights: The Documentary Record from the First Federal Congress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Younger Readers

Banks, Joan. The U.S. Constitution. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001. [Catalog Record]

Graham, Amy. A Look at the Bill of Rights: Protecting the Rights of Americans. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2008. [Catalog Record]

Heymsfeld, Carla R. and Joan W. Lewis. George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights. Alexandria, Va.: Patriotic Education Incorporated, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Meltzer, Milton. The Bill of Rights: How We Got It and What It Means. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1990. [Catalog Record]

Sobel, Syl. The Bill of Rights: Protecting Our Freedom Then and Now. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barrons Educational Series, 2008. [Catalog Record]

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  September 24, 2014
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