Creating the Bill of Rights
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Proposed Amendments to the Federal Constitution (Bill of Rights), September 1789. Manuscript engrossed and signed by John James Beckley. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


Even though there was universal agreement in Congress that people have certain natural rights, there was fierce debate over the need for specific rights to be clearly articulated and whether to incorporate those rights into the body of the Constitution or attach them as appendages. In September 1789, under the direction of John James Beckley, clerk of the United States House of Representatives and the first Librarian of Congress, twelve possible amendments to the Constitution were sent to the states for their ratification. By December 15, 1791, ten of these amendments were ratified by ten states and have since been known as the "Bill of Rights." The copy of the twelve amendments attributed to Beckley is the core document for this exploration of the antecedents of some of the "rights" of Americans. Americans drew on the heritage of English common law and declarations of rights in England and America to create these amendments to the federal constitution. The antecedents displayed here are not meant to be a definitive or complete list, but only important illustrative examples that were known to drafters of the amendments.