Today in history, on October 2, 1789, President of the United States George Washington sent proposed copies of the Bill of Rights to the states which were to consider, debate, and decide whether or not to adopt the list of restrictions upon the power of the general government.
In the state ratification conventions, several skeptics alleged that without such a bill of rights, the newly-created government would openly encroach upon the liberties of individuals and destroy the authority of the states at the behest of the central government.
George Mason, primary author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, criticized the Constitution on this basis, alleging that he would “sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution” that stood without such an instrument. Fellow Virginian Patrick Henry similarly protested in Richmond that the lack of a bill of rights would represent “the abandonment of your most sacred rights.”
From New York, a writer calling himself “Brutus” declared that its omission would lead the country “into an absolute state of vassalage.” Without a bill of rights, wrote Constitution opponent Luther Martin, the general government would spawn “a legislature without check or control” that “would open a door to every species of fraud and oppression.” From France, Thomas Jefferson contended that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
During the ratification struggle, some of the most ardent advocates of the unmodified Constitution during the ratification struggle had denied that such a bill of rights was a necessity, and even alleged that such an addition would be destructive.
For example, James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued that “it would have been superfluous and absurd” to have listed restrictions within a document designed to permit only the powers expressly delegated. However, some of those that originally opposed a bill of rights – such as Roger Sherman and James Madison – began to change their position on a bill of rights by the time of the First Congress.
To allay these misgivings about the constitutional framework, the First Congress debated and proposed a list of amendments to comprise a bill of rights – designed to encourage apprehensive factions within each state to accept the model.
Sherman played the pivotal role in assuring that the amendments would be part of an enumerated list rather than interspersed throughout the existing Constitution. Drawing upon verbiage from bills of rights from various states, and the debates in Congress, Madison settled upon a list of 12 amendments to send the states in 1789. By 1791, 10 of the 12 amendments received the endorsement of the states, and the federal Bill of Rights was born.
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