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Bill of Rights

  • The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, December 15, 1791
This copy of the Bill of Rights was sent to the Virginia General Assembly in September 1789 for ratification.
Related documents:
  • Virginia Declaration of Rights
    The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
  • Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
    Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786
  • United States Constitution
    United States Constitution, September 17, 1787
  • Mason's Objections
    George Mason's Objections, September 1787
« Return to Securing the Blessings of Liberty

The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, December 15, 1791

Late in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, George Mason of Virginia proposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution. Mason was the principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, but he did not persuade the other delegates that the Constitution needed its own bill of rights. As many of the Constitution's supporters explained later during the struggle for ratification, the specific grants of power that the Constitution contained limited the actions of the government and, together with the prohibitions on congressional action, in effect made the Constitution the guarantor of the people's rights and liberties without a bill of rights.

That explanation did not satisfy Mason or the other men who opposed ratification of the Constitution. They feared a too-powerful national government, and they believed that without explicit guarantees of such fundamental liberties as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion the new national government would be a danger to liberty.

In Virginia, after the convention narrowly voted to ratify the Constitution, the opponents of ratification and a number of the men who voted to ratify it, but who also agreed with some of the objections that had been made, proposed a long list of amendments, some of which were intended to reduce the power of the new government and some of which drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the English Bill of Rights for explicit protection of fundamental liberties.

Those debates and objections changed James Madison's mind on the issue. He had not believed that the Constitution required a bill of rights and said so in 1787 and 1788 during the ratification process. But the objections to the Constitution that its opponents raised persuaded him that the addition of a bill of rights would calm the fears of the opponents and give the government under the new Constitution a chance to succeed. Consequently, as a member of the United States House of Representatives in 1789, he drew on the amendments that the Virginia and other state ratification conventions had proposed to introduce the first draft of what became the Bill of Rights. As the amendments worked their ways through the House and the Senate, they took the shape that we now know, the first ten amendments. In the autumn of 1789 Congress submitted them and two other amendments to the state legislatures for ratification.

The Library of Virginia owns one of the twelve surviving original copies of the Bill of Rights. This is the very copy that Congress sent to the Virginia General Assembly for ratification or rejection. Fifteen and a half years after Virginia adopted its own Declaration of Rights, on December 15, 1791, the Commonwealth became the eleventh state to approve the third through twelfth amendments, which thereupon became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known ever after as the Bill of Rights. The second of the amendments proposed in 1789 was ratified in May 1992 and became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from abridging the freedoms of religion, speech, and press and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances; the right to keep and bear arms; the right of the people not to have troops quartered in their homes; the right to protection against unreasonable government searches and seizures; the right to jury trials in civil and criminal cases and of a grand jury in criminal cases; the right to due process of law in court; a prohibition on government taking private property without just compensation; a prohibition on excessive bail and fines and on cruel and unusual punishments; and two amendments defining rights of people and of the states: "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People"; and "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People."

For Educators


1. How many amendments to the Constitution were sent to the states by Congress for ratification as the Bill of Rights?

2. Who was president of the United States when the Bill of Rights was sent to the states for ratification?

3. How many people signed this copy of the Bill of Rights?

4. Where did Congress meet when the Bill of Rights was drafted?

Further Discussion

1. Explore the changes in language found in the last article of the draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the adopted Declaration of Rights and compare that to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

2. Research the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and explain why the convention did not add a bill of rights to the Constitution at that time.

3. Research the ratifications of the Constitution, which occurred in 1787 and 1788, and discuss the reasons why James Madison, who originally opposed the addition of the United States Bill of Rights, changed his mind.

4. Review the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the United States Bill of Rights and discuss the similarities and differences.

5. Read the English Bill of Rights and the American Bill of Rights and identify in the English version the origins of the many provisions found in the American Bill of Rights.

6. Identify the individual rights that were guaranteed in the original United States Constitution before the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

7. Create a new Bill of Rights, with provisions and language appropriate for our times.

8. Discuss the effectiveness of the Bill of Rights in respect to current events, particularly the First Amendment, which protects the right to worship and the freedom of speech and press.


Video: Declaring Essential Rights: Virginia and the U.S. Bill of Rights

Suggested Reading

Conley, Patrick T., 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.

Bodenhamer, David J., and James W. Ely, Jr., eds. The Bill of Rights in Modern America: After 200 Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Bowling, Kenneth R. "'A Tub to the Whale': The Founding Fathers and Adoption of the Federal Bill of Rights." Journal of the Early Republic 8 (1988): 223–251.

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.

Kukla, Jon, ed. The Bill of Rights: A Lively Heritage. Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1987.

Congress of the United States,
begun and held at the City of New York on
Wednesday the fourth of March one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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.
Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, That the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all or any of which articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution. Viz.
Articles in addition to, and amendments of, the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the Several States, pursuant to the fifth article of the original Constitution.
Article the First. After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand Persons.
Article the Second. No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senator and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
Article the Third. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of Speech, or of the Press; or the right of the People peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Article the Fourth. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Article the Fifth. No Soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Article the Sixth. The right of the People to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Article the Seventh. No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
Article the Eighth. In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial Jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law; and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Article the Ninth. In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by Jury shall be preserved, and no fact, tried by a Jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Article the Tenth. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Article the Eleventh. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People.
Article the Twelfth. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People.
FREDERICK AUGUSTUS MUHLENBERG Speaker of the House of Representatives.
JOHN ADAMS, Vice President of the United States, and President of the Senate.
JOHN BECKLEY, Clerk of the House of Representatives.
SAM. A. OTIS Secretary of the Senate.