• Exploring American History

Facts About the Bill of Rights

More than half the articles in America's Bill of Rights are directly or indirectly descended from clauses in the Magna Carta. For example, the Fifth Amendment guarantees "private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation." Article 28 of Magna Carta makes a similar statement about the seizure of "corn or other goods." At the same time, other documents and feedback were used as well.

The English Bill of Rights, an act of Parliament issued in 1689, also played a role in constructing the American version. The guarantees listed in this document are found in the U.S. Constitution’s first 10 amendments.

George Mason, one of the founding fathers from Virginia, was a strong proponent of the Bill of Rights. Though Mason has been overlooked by a majority of historians, had it not been for this knowledgeable man, there is a strong possibility the Bill of Rights may never have been added to the Constitution.

In 1776, Mason had helped to compose Virginia’s “Declaration of Rights”. This document states, [All] men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights . . . namely the enjoyment of life and liberty. This same principal would be added to the Declaration of Independence by another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

During the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1787, Mason strongly lobbied for the addition of a bill to expound upon a list of inalienable (absolute) rights. His request fell on deaf ears, thus prompting Mason’s refusal to sign the Constitution unless his request was met.

Though Mason was a strong proponent of the additional text being added to the Constitution, he was not the first to insist on the inclusion. That credit goes to Elbridge Gerry. He made the original motion and Mason then seconded it.

Counted among the powerhouses lining up to support Mason’s efforts were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Referred to by some as the “Sage of Monticello”, Jefferson stated, “I do not like . . . the omission of a bill of rights. Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

At the time the Constitution was written, Adams was in England. When he read the document, he stated, “A Declaration of Rights I wish to see with all my heart, though I am sensible of the difficulty in framing one in which all the States can agree.”

James Madison, referred to as the “Father of the Constitution”, and the future fourth president, saw no point in creating the list; despite admiring the principle of doing so. In October 1788, he told Jefferson, “My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights . . . at the same time, I have never thought [its] omission a material defect.”

Thankfully Madison would see the wisdom of including the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Speaking as a congressman from Virginia in 1789, Madison formally introduced these 10 amendments.

While compiling the original list, 19 amendments were presented. The House of Representatives approved 17 of them on August 24, 1789. In September, the Senate trimmed the list to 12. This list was then sent to the states for approval.

When the list was returned, the first and second entries on the list had been removed. The remaining 10 went on to become the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791 by a vote of 10-3. In 1939, the 150th birthday of the Constitution, those states which had originally opposed their inclusion - Massachusetts, Georgia and Connecticut - finally bestowed their approval upon the Bill of Rights.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) pushed for proclaiming December 15th as “Bill of Rights Day”. On November 27, 1941, he strongly encouraged Americans to celebrate December 15th as "Bill of Rights Day" to commemorate its anniversary:

"I call upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day . . . that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn."

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