The Bill of Rights: the First Amendment to the Constitution

Many states were hesitant about ratifying the Constitution as it provided little protection for citizens.  Several states only agreed to ratify the Constitution with the promise that these protections would soon be added.  These protections, known today as the Bill of Rights, were introduced the last week of the Convention, but were not addressed.  Many members had no energy to extend the debates longer and needed to return home to their businesses and farms, which they had been absent from for four months.

The Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison and originally contained seventeen amendments.  He presented these to Congress a few weeks after the Constitution’s ratification in June 1788.  The House brought his seventeen down to twelve and the Senate brought it down to ten.  In September 1788 Congress approve the Bill of Rights and passed them onto the States for ratification, which they did in 1791.  

Madison’s Twelve Amendments.  From the Library of Congress.

The Bill of Rights lays out the basic right and protections for states and their citizens.  Several of these rights come directly from the reasons the colonies rebelled in 1775: free speech, right to raise militias and bear arms, no forced quartering of soldiers, and protection against arbitrary arrest, trial, and punishment.  

From Madison’s twelve proposed amendments approved by the House, the first two were not ratified by the Senate.  The first dealt with the number of representative in Congress based on population.  The second outlined the salaries of congressmen.  Madison’s second amendment, was eventually ratified, now the 27th Amendment, in 1992 and restricts the ability of Congress to change its pay while in session.


How Do You Amend the Constitution?

Amendments to the Constitution can either be submitted by Congress or with calls for a Constitutional Convention.  The 27 amendments passed so far have all been submitted by Congress.  The president does not have a role in the amendment process and does not official White House approval or his signature for ratification.

When an amendment is presented, it must pass the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority vote.  The approved amendment is then compiled and sent to each state as a joint resolution.  Each governor submits the amendment to their state legislature for debate.  An amendment becomes part of the Constitution once three-fourths (38 out of 50) of the states ratify.

The process is slightly different in a Constitutional Convention.  An amendment presented by Constitutional Convention must pass a two-thirds vote by State legislatures.  The states then have to approve the amendment with the same three-fourth state ratification.