Take a moment to think about the US Constitution. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Freedom of speech? Protection from illegal searches? The right to keep and bear arms? These passages are cited so often that we can hardly imagine the document without them, but that’s exactly what the writers of the Constitution did. The list of individual freedoms known as the Bill of Rights was not in the original text and wasn’t added for another three years. So does this mean the founders didn’t consider them?
The answer goes back to the very origins of the Constitution itself. Even prior to the first shots of the American Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies worked together through a provisional government called the Continental Congress. During the war in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were ratified as the first truly national government. But establishing a new nation would prove easier than running it. Congress had no power to make the states comply with their laws. When the national government proved unable to raise funds, enforce foreign treaties, or suppress rebellions, it was clear reform was needed.
So in May 1787, all the states but Rhode Island sent delegates to Philidelphia for a constitutional convention. A majority of these delegates favored introducing a new national constitution to create a stronger federal government. Thanks to compromises on issues like state representation, taxation power, and how to elect the president, their proposal gradually gained support. But the final text drafted in September still had to be approved by conventions held in the states. So over the next few months, ratification would be debated across the young nation. Among those who championed the new document were leading statesmen Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
Together, they laid out eloquent philosophical arguments for their positions in a series of 85 essays now known as the Federalist Papers. But others felt the Constitution was overreaching and that more centralized authority would return the states to the sort of tyranny they had just escaped. These Anti-Federalists were especially worried by the text’s apparent lack of protections for individual liberties. As the conventions proceeded, many of these critics shifted from opposing the Constitution entirely to insisting on adding an explicit declaration of rights. So what was the Federalists problem with this idea? While their opponents accused them of despotism, wanting to maintain absolute power in the central government, their real motives were mostly practical.
Changing the constitution when it had already been ratified by some states could complicate the entire process. More importantly, Madison felt that people’s rights were already guaranteed through the democratic process, while adding extra provisions risked misinterpretation. And some feared that creating an explicit list of things the government can’t do would imply that it can do everything else.
After the first five states ratified the Constitution quickly, the debate grew more intense. Massachusetts and several other states would only ratify if they could propose their own amendments for consideration. Leading Federalists recognized the need to compromise and promised to give them due regard. Once ratification by nine states finally brought the Constitution into legal force, they made good on their promise.
During a meeting of the first United States Congress, representative James Madison stood on the House floor to propose the very amendments he had previously believed to be unnecessary. After much debate and revision, first in the Congress, and then in the states, ten amendments were ratified on December 15, 1791, over three years after the US Constitution had become law. Today, every sentence, word, and punctuation mark in the Bill of RIghts is still considered fundamental to the freedoms Americans enjoy, even though the original framers left them out.