The Bill of Rights Revisited: A Brief Surprising History

Carol Berkin – Baruch College

The two 18th century documents that best express American ideals are the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. In their own time, however, the former fared far better than the latter. The Continental Congress had asked Jefferson to pen the Declaration and, with only a few edits to his elegant language, it had heartily endorsed his handiwork. Once written by Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration was immediately disseminated widely—and it won the admiration of revolutionaries in every colony. The Bill of Rights, on the other hand, was virtually forced on the first Federal Congress by the annoying persistence of James Madison, whose 36 proposed amendments to the constitution were whittled down by the House and Senate to 12, and vigorously edited so that their language was less lawyerly.

When, on March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the ratification of the amendments, he buried the news under a list of other government achievements including news of legislation on fishing and on the post office. While a war for independence was the consequence of Jefferson’s declaration, the bill of rights had little impact on American life for almost a century. Madison had hoped these amendments would become the aspirational credo of the nation; he would have to wait until the 20th century for this dream to be realized. Why he drafted them, how his contemporaries understood them, and why they had little impact on American life until the 1930s is a story worth telling.