How Did the Bill of Rights
Come to Be?

Learn more about the history and evolution of the first 10 amendments

In U.S. history classes, Americans learn that the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution are called the Bill of Rights, which collectively guarantees individual liberties and prevents tyranny from the federal government. The First Amendment alone secures five of America’s most cherished freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition of the government.

But these rights weren’t originally a part of the Constitution. After pressure from several states, the First Congress in 1789 voted to include them to help ensure that the document that defines how the United States is governed includes protections for individuals and limits on the federal government’s power. Get a closer look at the origins of the Bill of Rights with these facts.

3

The number of delegates at the Constitutional Convention — George Mason and Edmund Randolph, both of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts — who refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked protections for individual rights.  

George Mason

The biggest advocate for a bill of rights out of all delegates at the Constitutional Convention. The delegate from Virginia thought individual freedoms should be included in the original Constitution. Initially, his ideas were dismissed.

James Madison 

The principal author of the Bill of Rights. He originally opposed the idea of including them, but later supported adding explicit protections for individual liberty and limits on the power of the federal government and penned a list of rights for Congress to review in June 1789. He used the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written a few years earlier by a fellow Virginian and former political adversary, George Mason, as his inspiration.

11

The number of states, or three-quarters majority, that needed to ratify these amendments for them to become law.

Dec. 15, 1791

The day Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the Bill of Rights, making it part of the Constitution.

12

The number of amendments that were approved by Congress in 1789; the states ratified only 10 by the end of 1791. 

1992

The year one of the two remaining originally proposed amendments was ratified by three-quarters of the states and added to the Constitution as the 27th Amendment — 203 years later. It prevents members of Congress from making changes to their salary during a term. The other proposed amendment, which would cap representation in the House of Representatives at 50,000 to 1, is still officially pending ratification.

3

The number of states that did not ratify the Bill of Rights by 1792. Since three-quarters of the states had already ratified it, it was unnecessary for Connecticut, Georgia and Massachusetts to do so. 

1939

The year that Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia formally ratified the Bill of Rights, in  commemoration of the 150th anniversary of its passage.

1941 

The year that the 15th of December was officially named Bill of Rights Day by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of the 150th anniversary of its addition to the Constitution.


Learn more about: 
The history of the Bill of Rights (National Constitution Center)
The writing of the Bill of Rights (National Archives)
The shift in support for a bill of rights (National Archives)
George Mason’s role in shaping the Bill of Rights (National Archives)
Remaining proposed amendments (U.S. Congress

And read the complete document at the National Archives.

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