A look back at the fabricationof the U.S. Bill of Rights

by Brett Knapp

f asked, most Americans could recall having seen at least one painting of a roomful of men wearing powdered wigs and knickers and engaged in what appears to be serious legislative business.
Such images from the formative days of the nation are synonymous with American resolve against tyrannical rule, and epic meetings used to hammer out and ratify such revered documents as the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
But one of the most referred-to bibles of the American Democracy — the Bill of Rights — was hardly produced in a setting that lends itself to great artistic depiction, unless a painting of a small man hunkered over his candlelit writing table with a quill in hand strikes you as epic.
That’s because the Bill of Rights was not added to the Constitution until Dec. 15, 1791, about two-and-a-half years after the government as we know it today had been set up. And the first Congress only considered the matter in summer 1789 after being badgered by one of its smallest, but most active members.
James Madison only stood about 5 feet, 4 inches tall and spoke so quietly when at the podium that it would likely have been difficult to hear him even with the benefit of modern amplification technology. But no one man did more to shape the first 10 amendments to the Constitution than the mousey, intellectual statesman from Virginia.
“Madison was everywhere in this period,” said Paul Murphy, a University regent’s professor in the history department who specializes in American legal and constitutional history.
Several states ratified the Constitution on the condition that a bill of rights would be added either at a second convention or in the first Congress.
Madison forced his colleagues in the House of Representatives to consider the issue of a bill of rights because many of them had promised their constituents they would do so in their election campaigns. William Lee Miller wrote in his book on the Constitution that it “must be the most important campaign promise in the history of American politics.”
After some arm-twisting got the process rolling, Madison took it upon himself to privately sift through some 200 amendments that had been submitted by the states. “Madison took over the administrative dimension of pulling this thing together,” Murphy said.
Madison immediately rejected any amendments that sought to obstruct powers already laid out in the Constitution. He kept those amendments that sought to protect individual rights and liberties — such as freedom of speech, press and conscience — and brought forth a list of 19 for review by his colleagues.
All 10 of the principles that ultimately ended up in the Bill of Rights can be found in some form in Madison’s list, including the freedoms of speech, press and religion found in the First Amendment.
Although these protections were considered vital at the time they were written, they weren’t always held in such high esteem. “Oddly enough, during the Revolutionary period … the question of freedom of the press was a very low priority item,” Murphy said.
Several national leaders were also in favor of establishing a state Anglican church that would receive tax dollars from the government.
Most people and politicians today preach the separation of church and state because they believe the First Amendment was designed strictly to curb excess church involvement in the government. But the First Amendment prohibits the “establishment of religion,” to protect both the government and the church from one another. Madison feared that politicians would corrupt the church, and wrote that an established church is “adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity.”
Unfortunately, many Americans don’t understand the reasoning behind the principles they hold dear, a reality Murphy says stems from the fact that the Founding Fathers were superior political theorists compared to career politicians of today. “Politicians today, by and large, only pay lip service to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution,” Murphy said.