Civics 101: Do you know your Bill of Rights?

J. H. Osborne • Dec 16, 2019 at 3:15 PM

Sunday was National Bill of Rights Day. It always falls on Dec. 15 because it was on that date in 1791 that the 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified.

The Bill of Rights is one of the three founding documents of the United States. The other two are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Bill of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which spell out our rights as Americans. But did you know it was first proposed to contain 17 amendments? And then 12?

It guarantees civil rights and liberties such as freedom of speech, the press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states. The original joint resolution proposing the Bill of Rights is on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The three documents were first displayed together there beginning on National Bill of Rights Day in 1952.

The Constitution might never have been ratified if the framers hadn’t promised to add a Bill of Rights. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution gave citizens more confidence in the new government and contain many of modern Americans’ most valued freedoms.

The Preamble to the Bill of Rights reads: “The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

Introducing the Bill of Rights in the First Congress

Few members of the First Congress wanted to make amending the new Constitution a priority. But James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to secure its passage. Madison had come to appreciate the importance voters attached to these protections, the role that enshrining them in the Constitution could have in educating people about their rights, and the chance that adding them might prevent its opponents from making more drastic changes to it.

Ratifying the Bill of Rights

The House passed a joint resolution containing 17 amendments based on Madison’s proposal. The Senate changed the joint resolution to consist of 12 amendments. A joint House and Senate Conference Committee settled remaining disagreements in September. On Oct. 2, 1789, President Washington sent copies of the 12 amendments adopted by Congress to the states. By December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified 10 of these, now known as the “Bill of Rights.”

Source: The National Archives