New Exhibit on the Creation of the Bill of Rights

December 24, 2020

New Exhibit on the Creation of the Bill of Rights

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day. On this day 221 years ago, the Virginia assembly added its assent to that of ten other states who had already ratified a set of amendments to the new Constitution, producing the three-quarters majority necessary to make these amendments law.

To culminate the Ashbrook Center’s series of interactive exhibits on the American Founding, Gordon Lloyd has designed a website that details the creation of the Bill of Rights.

The website aims to provide access to both the origins and the politics of the Bill of Rights. To these ends, Lloyd has compiled a range of resources that enable the reader to bore into this subject from a variety of vantage points.

The first ten amendments of the Constitution actually name 26 different rights, anatomized in Lloyd’s exhibit in repeated ways.  A comprehensive identification table lists the first ten amendments to the Constitution—what we call our Bill of Rights—in an expandable list. This list, The Origins of the Bill of Rights by Amendment allows a user to click on an amendment and see the particular rights enumerated in it appear in a drop-down list. Clicking on a particular right reveals a drop-down list of the historical origins of this right.

For example, when one clicks on the First Amendment, one finds it contains two religion clauses, two clauses dealing with the right to free expression, and two clauses outlining rights of free association. Clicking on the free expression clause dealing with speech, one finds listed its sources in three different places: the English and colonial tradition, the state constitutions adopted during the Revolution, and the state ratification conventions. Clicking on a particular historical origin reveals a list of the documents in which the right was first enumerated, with links to texts of those documents.

This and other resources on the site make it easy for the readers to plumb the historical origins of any of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to our Constitution. Yet the articulation of these rights was not an automatic outgrowth of the historical precedents. Different states elevated different freedoms, and the single federal Bill of Rights came into being after debate and compromise. Hence it is important to study how the Bill of Rights arose from the debates over the ratification of the Constitution and ensuing debates in the first Congress. The website provides the texts of essential documents written during the ratification debate showing the political interests that shaped the Bill of Rights’ creation. It also offers a breakdown of the debate in the first Congress that culminated in the Bill of Rights.

That we have our Bill of Rights at all may be attributed to the dedicated effort of James Madison, who, not content to see the Constitution ratified by the states above Antifederalist objections, sought during the first Congress to rectify deficiencies in that document that he felt the Antifederalists had correctly identified. Lloyd’s exhibit gives the text of Madison’s speech proposing the amendment of the Constitution through the enumeration of 39 rights not specifically named. It documents the debate in Congress as the House and Senate dealt with Madison’s proposals, and it offers the text of the letters Madison exchanged with Jefferson as he pursued the Bill of Rights project.