Bill of Rights


DECEMBER 15, 1791


Article V of the Constitution provides for the method of proposing and adopting amendments to the Constitution. A designated federal official certifies that an amendment has been satisfactorily proposed and adopted. Today, the certifying official is the Archivist of the United States; in 1789–1791 it was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

To keep his tally, Jefferson created a chart listing each of Congress’ twelve proposed amendments on a separate line. Each state was assigned a specific column in the traditional north to south fashion. As Jefferson received notification of each state’s ratification (or rejection) he entered the approval or the negative action. The columns for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia were left empty because Jefferson never received notification of their actions. On the “Negative” side of the chart, Jefferson noted that Delaware had postponed action on the first amendment that dealt with apportionment in the House of Representatives, that New Hampshire and New York had rejected the second amendment, and that Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were “silent” on the second amendment that dealt with salaries for members of Congress (which was ultimately adopted 200 years later as the Twenty-seventh Amendment). Because Jefferson created the chart before 1791, there was no column for Vermont. When Vermont ratified the Constitution in January 1791, instead of creating a new chart, Jefferson marked the vertical line between the columns for Connecticut and New York with a “V” to indicate Vermont’s adoption of all twelve amendments.
(The manuscript chart is located in the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress.)

TJ amendments chart

We Hold These Truths: 150th Year Celebration of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1941

Most Americans gratefully acknowledge the protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Few, however, realize that the 15th of December is celebrated as Bill of Rights Day, which commemorates the day in 1791 when Virginia became the eleventh state to adopt the Bill of Rights, thus satisfying the constitutional requirement that amendments must be approved by three-fourths of the states.

In 1941, Americans celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Bill of Rights with great fanfare. A special play entitled “We Hold These Truths” was broadcast on radio throughout the country. Narrated by Jimmy Stewart, the play featured some of the most prominent Hollywood celebrities, such as Orson Wells, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Lionel Barrymore, etc. After the play, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner before Franklin D. Roosevelt—introduced as “the president of the people of the United States”—gave a stirring “fireside chat” in which he attacked the fascist tigers of the world (Germany, Italy, and Japan). The broadcast on 15 December 1941 was made more poignant because but a week earlier the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Produced by Norman Corwin, this entire radio celebration is readily available in the Internet Archive.