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Almost immediately after beginning to meet in 1789, the first Congress, led by James Madison, began to consider amendments to the Constitution proposed by the state ratifying conventions. George Washington and Madison had personally pledged to consider amendments because they realized that some amendments would be necessary to reduce pressure for a second constitutional convention that might drastically alter and weaken the new federal government. Fastening on Anti-Federalist criticisms that the Constitution lacked a clear articulation of guaranteed rights, Madison proposed amendments that emphasized the rights of individuals rather than the rights of states, an ingenious move that led to cries that these amendments—now known as the “Bill of Rights”—were a mere diversion.

"I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights. . . ."

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787

Religious Liberty for Virginians, 1776

“The full and free exercise” of their religion and the disestablishment of the Anglican Episcopal Church was proposed as an amendment to the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 by James Madison, a member of the Virginia General Assembly. Madison here notes his proposals, which argued that religious freedom should be based on natural rights and the dictates of conscience rather than on mutual toleration.

Virginia Declaration of Rights, annotated by James Madison [ca. May 29–June 12, 1776]. Printed broadside annotated by James Madison. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (75.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0075, us0075_1]

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Virginia Proposes Amendments to the Constitution

Even before the new United States Constitution was approved by the states, ratifying conventions in several states proposed amendments, such as these from Virginia. This pressure from the states forced James Madison to seek a bill of rights in the form of amendments to the Constitution soon after the new Congress first met in 1789.

Richmond, State of Virginia in Convention, Wednesday the 25th of June, 1788. Richmond: 1788. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (75.01.00) [Digital ID# us0075_01p1]

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Madison’s Opinion on State Support of Clergy

In 1785 Virginia was in the midst of a battle over state support for Protestant ministers. This “Memorial and Remonstrance,” anonymously prepared by James Madison, is an erudite, radical statement in favor of religious freedom and against state assessments for the support of ministers. Madison argued that the assessment bill violated a citizen’s inalienable right to freedom of religion.

[James Madison]. “Memorial and Remonstrance to the Virginia Assembly,” [ca. June 20, 1785]. Manuscript document. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (76.00.01) [Digital ID# us0076_01; us0076]

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Women’s Rights

American women were largely excluded from the political process in revolutionary America, despite the efforts of women, such as Abigail Adams and Merry Otis Warren. Writing from Paris where women had become political activists in the salons, Thomas Jefferson envisioned an America where “our good ladies I trust have been too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics.”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Anne Willing Bingham, May 11, 1788. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (76.01.00) [Digital ID# us0076_01p1]

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Calls for a Second Constitutional Convention

In the final days of debate at the Constitutional Convention, die-hard opponents, such as Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a delegate from Massachusetts, launched a failed effort to call for a second convention to secure the rights of citizens. Continued vocal demands for a bill of rights forced James Madison to propose amendments to the Constitution almost immediately after the Convention met in 1789.

James Madison. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (77.00.01) [Digital ID# us0077_01p1]

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Bill of Rights Rejected at Constitutional Convention

In the final days of the Constitutional Convention, as delegates rushed to complete work on the final draft of the Constitution, George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed that the Constitution be “prefaced with a bill of rights.” On September 12, 1787, after little debate, the proposal was unanimously rejected by the delegates as unnecessary to protect individual rights.

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  • James Madison. Notes of Debates in the Constitutional Convention, September 12, 1787. Manuscript journal. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (077.00.00) [Digital ID# us0077tt]

  • James Madison. Notes of Debates in the Constitutional Convention, September 12, 1787. Manuscript copy. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (077.01.00) [Digital ID# us0077_01]

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The Constitution in Jeopardy

In the final days of the Constitutional Convention, as delegates rushed to complete work on the final draft of the Constitution, George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed that the Constitution be “prefaced with a bill of rights.” On September 12, 1787, after little debate, the proposal was unanimously rejected by the delegates as unnecessary to protect individual rights. James Madison recorded Benjamin Franklin’s doubts five days later.

James Madison. Notes of Debates in the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787. Manuscript copy in the hand of John C. Payne. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (077.00.03) [Digital ID#s us0077_01p2, us0077p2]

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Bill of Rights Seen as a Diversion

In A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), a tub is tossed to an angry whale to divert it from attacking a boat. This satirical phrase was applied to the constitutional amendments to secure individual rights (the Bill of Rights) because “like a tub thrown out to a whale” they diverted attention away from adopting more substantial amendments that would change the structure of the federal government.

Jonathan Swift. A Tale of a Tub. London: Charles Bathurst, 1739. Frontispiece engraving by J. Mynde. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (78.00.00) [Digital ID# us0078]

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A “whipsyllabub” or “a tub thrown out to a whale”

Many supporters and opponents of the proposed amendments to the federal Constitution known as the “Bill of Rights” considered them a diversion from substantive changes to the Constitution. Aedanus Burke (1743–1802), an anti-federalist Congressman from South Carolina, asserted on August 15, 1789 that they were “little better than whipsyllabub, frothy and full of wind” and were like “a tub thrown out to a whale, to secure the freight of the ship and its peaceable voyage.”

Aedanus Burke. Speech in The Congressional Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the First House of Representatives of the United States of America. New York: Harrisson and Purdy, 1789–1790. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (78.01.00) [Digital ID# us0078_01]

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Jefferson Continues Call for a Bill of Rights

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s minister to France, continued to call for a bill of rights in letters to James Madison. Jefferson’s open support for revisions to the Constitution was instrumental in Madison’s plans to propose these amendments to the new federal Congress soon after its first meeting of Congress, even though the amendments diverted attention from the formation of the new federal government.

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (78.02.01) [Digital ID#s us0078_02p4; us0078_02p3]

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Absence of Bill of Rights in Constitution Seen as Problem

In this letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson identified the absence of a bill of rights and the failure to provide for rotation in office or term limits as primary problems in the new federal Constitution. Being in foreign service in France left Jefferson on the periphery of the struggles to write and ratify a new federal constitution.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (79.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0079; us0079_1, us0079_2, us0079_3]

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Jefferson Sees Bill of Rights as Curb on Executive and Legislative Branches of Government

Thomas Jefferson was a strong supporter of supplementing the Constitution with a bill of rights. Jefferson thought they would give an independent judiciary the means to curb any “tyranny” of the executive or legislative branches. Jefferson feared the “inconveniencies of the want of a Declaration” of Rights “by way of supplement.”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, March 15, 1789. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (79.01.01 ) [Digital ID#s us0079_01p01, us0079_01p1, us0079_01p2, us0079_01p3, us0079_01p4, us0079_01p5]

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Amendments Sent for Ratification

From hundreds of proposed amendments to the Constitution, Congress gave final approval to twelve amendments. The ten that were sanctioned became known as the Bill of Rights. Copies prepared under the direction of John Beckley (1757–1807), clerk of the House, were sent to President George Washington on September 25, 1789, for dispersal to the states for ratification.

Amendments three through twelve were approved and went into effect on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify them. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia did not vote to ratify. Although Amendment Two was rejected in the 1790s, it later became the twenty-seventh amendment to the Constitution.

Proposed Amendments to the Federal Constitution (Bill of Rights), September 1789. Manuscript engrossed and signed by John James Beckley. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (84) [Digital ID# raadf010]

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Proposed Constitutional Amendments

The twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution were published by Thomas Greenleaf of New York even before they had been sent to the states for their ratification. The author of this broadside let it be known that Congress was trying to satisfy the demands of the state constitutional ratification conventions.

Proposed Articles of Amendment to the Federal Constitution, September 14, 1789. Broadside. New York: Thomas Greenleaf. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (84.01.00) [Digital ID#s us0084_01p1, us0084_01p2]

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Proposed Constitutional Amendments

The twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution were sent to the states late in 1789 for ratification by state legislatures. Printers throughout the nation, such as Thomas Adams of Boston, published the proposed amendments in pamphlet and broadside form. Only Articles three through twelve were ratified and by only three-fourths of the states.

Amendments Proposed to be Added to the Federal Constitution by the Congress of the United States of America. Boston: Thomas Adams, 1790. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (84.02.01) [Digital ID#s us0084_02p3, us0084_02]

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African Colony for Freed Slaves

Encouraging the emigration of freed slaves to an asylum outside the boundaries of the United States became one part of attempts to end slavery in the United States. In 1789 James Madison, who became head of the American Colonization Society after leaving the presidency, endorsed an African colony as “a great encouragement to Manumission.… the best hope yet presented to putting an end to the slavery in which not less than 600,000 unhappy Negroes are now involved.”

James Madison. Memorandum on a African Colony for Freed Slaves, ca. October 20, 1789. Manuscript. William Thornton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (85.00.00) [Digital ID# us0085, us0085_1]

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Jefferson Tallies State Ratifications of “Rights”

Thomas Jefferson, as secretary of state, maintained this tally of state ratifications of the proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution. Only ten amendments received the required ratifications to become part of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson. “Tabulation of State Votes on Amendments to the Constitution,” 1789–1791. Manuscript document. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (85.02.00) [Digital ID# us0085_01]

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Temple of Liberty Preserved by Concord

This patriotic and nationalistic allegorical woodcut, probably created for a banner or a similar type of display shows the figure of Liberty arising from an altar in a temple. The figure holds the Bill of Rights, a staff and a liberty cap. On the altar is inscribed Preserved by Concord. Above the temple an eagle holds a streamer with the slogan "The Union Must and Shall be Preserved."

Temple of Liberty. New York: Jared Bell, 1834. Woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (86) [Digital ID# ppmsca-17520]

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James Madison

James Madison (1751–1838), an Orange County, Virginia, planter, was a strong proponent of a strong central government to replace the Articles of Confederation. Often credited with being the A “Father of the Constitution” of 1787, Madison was a leader in the House of Representatives, established the Jeffersonian-Republican Party with Thomas Jefferson, and in 1809 succeeded him as president of the United States.

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English Declaration of Rights

Fearing abuses of rights and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church under the Catholic King James II (reigned 1685–1688), the English parliament deposed James. They invited his Protestant daughter and son-in-law to assume the throne, but imposed the 1689 Declaration of Rights on the King William III (reigned 1689–1702) and Queen Mary II (reigned 1689–1694) as a precondition to being crowned. However, Parliament was more concerned with protecting its own rights and privileges than those of individuals.

Declaration of Rights in Anno Regni Gulielmi et Mariæ Regis & Reginæ Angliæ, Scotia, Franciæ & Hiberniæ, Primo. London: Charles Bill and Thomas Newcomb, 1689. Law Library, Library of Congress (108.00.02) [Digital ID#s us0108_04, us0108, us0108_01, us0108_02, us0108_03]

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American Liberty as Goddess of Youth

American liberty or freedom was often presented as a beautiful young woman. In this popular 1796 allegory by Edward Savage (1761–1817), a maiden in the form of the Goddess of Youth (Hebe) offers food to an eagle, symbol of the United States, while she treads on chains, a scepter, key, and other implements of tyranny. A liberty cap, mounted on the pole of an American flag, floats in the sky behind her, visible through the clouds of war that spew lightning to drive the British fleet from Boston harbor.

Edward Savage. Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth, Giving Support to the Bald Eagle. Philadelphia: Edward Savage, June 11, 1796. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (131.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-13641]

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Amendments

The first Federal Congress met at New York from March 4–September 29, 1789. It established procedures for dealing with the President, passed laws establishing the executive departments (State, War, Treasury) and the federal judiciary, and set the tariff on imports, which supplied most of the revenue of the federal government. This copy bears George Washington’s signature on the title page and is open to the proposed amendments that would form the Bill of Rights. Articles three through twelve were ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America, Begun and Held at the City of New York . . . . New York: Francis Childs and John Swaine, 1789. Law Library, Library of Congress (084.03.00) [Digital ID# us0084_03]

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Jefferson Sees a Need for a Bill of Rights

In this letter to David Humphreys (1753–1808), soldier, diplomat, poet, and confidant of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson voices his concern that the new federal Constitution lacks a bill of rights and fails to set term limits on the presidency. Jefferson favored the addition of a declaration of rights as a supplement to the basic constitutional document—the method of amendment chosen by Congress later in 1789.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, March 18, 1789. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (079.02.00) [Digital ID# us0079_02]

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Religious Rights Endangered in Virginia

In this letter, partly written in cipher to protect its contents from prying eyes, James Madison reports that opposition to the General Assessment Bill, which would provide state funding for all Protestant ministers, was growing. The leaders of the various sects continued to shift their ground on the measure, causing Madison and other supporters of a separation between church and state a great deal of anxiety. Madison played a leading role in opposition to the General Assessment Bill and drafted the key remonstrance against it that circulated throughout the state of Virginia.

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 20, 1785. Manuscript, partly in cipher. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (076.02.00) (Digital ID# us0076_02)

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The Washington Family

George Washington is represented in this engraving with Martha Custis Washington (1731–1802) and two of their grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857) and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis (1779–1852), during his presidency. The group, which posed for artist Edward Savage (1761–1817) while in New York City, is shown around a table gazing at a map of the newly formed District of Columbia. Washington’s personal servant, an African American slave named William Lee, stands in the background.

Edward Savage. The Washington Family, George Washington, His Lady and Her Two Grandchildren by the Name of Custis. Hand colored engraving. Philadelphia: E. Savage and Robert Wilkinson. London: 1798. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (074.02.00) [Digital ID# pga-02650]

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