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Congress Submits the First Constitutional Amendments to the States


September 25, 1789

Senate revisions to the House-passed Bill of Rights

It was in the fall of 1789 that the First Congress submitted the first constitutional amendments to the states for ratification. When Virginia representative James Madison introduced those amendments, some members protested that the Constitution was so new that they ought not hurry to change it. But during the ratification process, opponents had complained that the Constitution lacked specific guarantees of individual rights. Most of the framers thought that the states already guaranteed those rights, but in order to win Virginia’s approval, Madison had pledged his support for adding specific rights into the Constitution. He told the House that he considered himself “bound in honor and in duty” to bring these amendments to a vote promptly.

After much debate and revision, the First Congress agreed on 12 amendments. By 1791 the states had ratified 10 of those amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights. Unlike recent amendments, with set time limits for ratification, the first 12 amendments were open ended. So in 1992 the states ratified one more of those originally proposed amendments, 203 years after it was submitted to the states. The Twenty-Seventh Amendment requires that no congressional pay raise go into effect until after the next election, allowing the voters to register their approval or disapproval.

The only one of the original 12 amendments not adopted would have required that each congressional district contain no more than 50,000 citizens. That cap might have been realistic in 1789, but not any longer. With the population of the United States now exceeding 300 million, the House of Representatives would today have more than 6,000 members and would need to meet in a stadium rather than a chamber.

The Bill of Rights stands as one of the great accomplishments of the First Congress and continues to profoundly affect the nation, although there remains much discussion over what each of those amendments means. For example, the Tenth Amendment reserves for the states the powers not delegated to the national government. During the congressional debate on that amendment, states’ rights advocates wanted it to read “the powers not expressly delegated” by the Constitution would be reserved for the states. James Madison objected to “expressly.” He reasoned that there must necessarily be powers by implication, “unless the constitution descended to recount every minutia.” Madison won that vote, leaving the Tenth Amendment more general and subject to conflicting interpretation. The first amendments therefore continued the spirit of the original Constitution, mixing specificity with ambiguity, a combination that has allowed the Constitution to govern a vastly expanded nation with very few amendments.