December 15 has long been celebrated as the anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights. On that day in 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the first ten amendments, thus meeting the three-quarters requirement set by Article V of the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights was not the spontaneous act of a few individuals at a specific time. Its origins stretched far back for centuries to the ancient city states of Greece; the 300-year history of the Roman Republic; the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment; the social-contract philosophy, the English common law and the Whig libertarian tradition with its great documents such as the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights; and the unfolding of colonial American history.
From the very beginning of English settlement, colonial Americans wrote down their rights in a peremptory effort to tell government officials where they ought not to tread. When threatened for more than a decade with despotism from the new British imperial policy implemented in 1763 after the end of the French & Indian War, Americans felt compelled to declare their independence, abandoning the bedrock of “the rights of Englishmen” and embracing “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Americans drafted new state constitutions with either rights embedded in them or attached as bills of rights. When faced with the necessity of revising the weak and ineffectual Articles of Confederation—the country’s first federal constitution—a general convention of the states drafted a much stronger national constitution, but inexplicably did not include a bill of rights. Only after an intense, year-long public debate was a bill of rights promised and then obtained three years later, thus satisfying the majority of Americans who had serious qualms about the dangers inherent in a strong government without the protections of a bill of rights.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first president under the new Constitution. In his inaugural address, Washington suggested only one specific for Congress’ consideration—a bill of rights should be proposed to ease the anxieties of many.
In a speech in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, James Madison of Virginia introduced a series of amendments protecting rights. Instead of being compiled in a list to be appended at the end of the Constitution as a separate bill, Madison proposed that his amendments be inserted where they naturally fit in the body of the Constitution. Roger Sherman of Connecticut strenuously argued that the original Constitution and the proposed amendments should be kept separate. “We might as well endeavor to mix brass, iron and clay, as to incorporate such heterogeneous articles.” After a stiff battle, the House accepted Madison’s amendments and others but preferred Sherman’s separate listing at the end of the Constitution.
The House sent its amendments to the Senate which made some modifications, the most substantial of which eliminated the prohibition on the states from violating the freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and trial by jury in criminal cases. A conference committee ironed out the discrepancies, and Congress on September 25, 1789, approved twelve amendments to be sent to the state legislatures for their approval. (The order of the amendments was arranged by where the amendments would have appeared in the original text of the Constitution if they had been inserted in the body of the Constitution.)
President Washington transmitted Congress’ twelve amendments to the states on October 2, 1789. Since only eleven states had ratified the Constitution, and since it took three-quarters of the states to adopt amendments, nine states would be needed for ratification. When North Carolina joined the Union, it still took nine of the twelve states to ratify. Rhode Island became the ninth state to ratify the amendments shortly after its convention adopted the Constitution on May 29, 1790. But now, with thirteen states in the Union, ten state legislatures were needed to satisfy the three-quarter requirement. Vermont entered the Union and became the tenth state to ratify the amendments, but now eleven states were needed. The three-quarters vote was finally achieved when Virginia ratified on December 15, 1791. On March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed the states that ten of the amendments had been adopted.
Georgia was the only state legislature to reject the amendments when a joint committee reported on December 1, 1789, that it was premature to consider amendments because they could not “be effectually pointed out, but by experience.” The legislatures of both Massachusetts and Connecticut each split—one house adopted eleven; the other house approved ten amendments. Neither legislature reconciled the disagreement. Georgia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all ceremonially adopted the Bill of Rights during the sesquicentennial year of 1939.