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United States Bill of Rights 1789

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Twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution, introduced in September 1789 by Congress.

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The Bill of Rights was written in the summer of 1789 by the newly elected Congress, two years after the Constitution itself had been written. By the summer of 1789, all states had ratified the Constitution, aside from Rhode Island and North Carolina, though several state ratifying conventions had included in their forms of ratification a list of concerns and proposed amendments. It was the hope of several members of Congress that writing a Bill of Rights would induce these final two states to ratify the Constitution and inspire among the states that had already ratified a greater sense of confidence in the document. On 28 September 1789, following the report of the Committee for Enrolled Bills, the amendments agreed by both houses of Congress were referred to the individual state legislatures. Of the twelve amendments referred, ten were ratified by the states and comprise the Bill of Rights.

This collection is a detailed model of the debates that took place in Congress over the wording of the particular provisions. There are inevitable lacunas. The Journals of the House of Representatives are detailed, and extensive (even near-verbatim) accounts of what took place on the floor of the House and in its Committee of the Whole exist and have been used in the construction of this publication. Various contemporary accounts, such as daily reports by various newspapers and Thomas Lloyd’s stenographic record (published as the Congressional Register), and the Annals of Congress inform much of the debate in the House of Representatives. As is often the case, the records of smaller committees do not survive, and perhaps were never even kept in so formal a manner. For these subcommittees, we have reconstructed the timeline as much as the record allows, using the journals, newspapers, and extant documents. It is of particular regret that the work of the final Conference Committee that met to resolve the differences between the versions of the Bill of Rights proposed by the Senate and the House remains opaque.

Just as frustratingly, the Journal of the Senate for this period was published in a summary form that records the results of deliberations, but frequently compresses points of detail. It is clear from the manuscript, which is written up in a formal, careful hand, as well as from the way it was worded, that it was a distillation of the journal that must have been kept to manage the day-to-day business of the Senate. It obscures not only what was said in debate, but even who proposed particular amendments to the text and how many revisions were considered for particular paragraphs. The Annals of Congress, when compared with the Journal, offers a slightly more robust account of what took place in the Senate, but it is similarly sparse.

This collection nevertheless sheds new light on the way that the language of the Bill of Rights evolved, and enables a reader to understand the context within which particular decisions were made. The Bill of Rights was debated alongside other legislation in the first Congress. In fact, there was considerable debate within the House of Representatives as to whether the first session of the first Congress was an appropriate time to consider amendments to the Constitution, and several representatives argued that the United States government was yet unformed and its Constitution had not yet stood the test of time. Eventually, they decided to proceed with the amendments, but as the consideration of amendments to the Constitution was intermixed with the consideration of other legislation, choices had to be made about what to include in this collection. We have included the days on which the members of Congress were known to have taken their seats, for example, to show the considerable time that it took for Congress to assemble, and we have also included some of the discussions about how the business of Congress should be conducted. We have also included any forms of wording suggested by a member of Congress as proposals for alternative words, even if that proposal was never seconded and so never achieved the status of a formally proposed form of wording. In those instances, the proposed amendment is shown as being immediately dropped from discussion for want of support. Similarly, in representing motions that altered the text of a document in consideration, we have indicated as the event ‘Source Material’ the source from which the text of the document derives. If the description text comes from a different source than the actual document text, we have indicated as much in a parenthetical citation. In events that do not propose text (such as procedural events, debate events, or decision events), the ‘Source Material’ listed is the source from which the description text derives. Lastly, the first session of the first Congress established a precedent for the ways in which documents would move between the House of Representatives and the Senate, a procedure that is captured in an event’s ‘Related Events’ tab.

A set of editors' commentary notes is provided that explains some particular difficulties encountered with the records pertaining to this collection, and we have included links to the source material relating to the Bill of Rights held at other institutions.

NPSC, LAD

July 2019

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Cite as: Lauren Davis, Nick Williford, Sebastian Bates, and Lusiana Castiglione (eds.), United States Bill of Rights 1789, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019).