During the battle to ratify the U.S. Constitution, many Americans worried that the founding document failed to list specific rights to be protected against abuse of power. Thomas Jefferson, who generally approved of the new Constitution, put voice to that view when he wrote to James Madison: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth . . . and what no just government should refuse.” To gain support for the Constitution, Federalists agreed to add amendments protecting personal liberties.
Madison was one of those who had considered a list of protected rights unnecessary. He believed the Constitution, as written, gave the federal government no power to violate citizens’ liberties. He also worried that listing specific rights might imply that the government could limit rights not listed. Nevertheless, when the First Congress met in New York in 1789, he set about crafting a set of amendments. “If we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it,” he said, “without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men to make such alterations as shall produce the effect.”
Madison and a few colleagues sifted through scores of proposed amendments and winnowed them down to a brief list, using the Virginia Declaration of Rights and other precedents as guides. Congress sent twelve amendments to the states for approval. Ten were eventually ratified. On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the last state needed for ratification, and the Bill of Rights went into effect. Those first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, preserving such cherished rights as freedom of speech, press, and religion, lie at the heart of Americans’ faith in limited government and the rule of law.