The Bill of Rights: A Humongous Challenge for James Madison

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

James Madison was deeply saddened because he could not get a seat in the Senate. Nonetheless, he turned his attention to the business of running the country. The first part of that business touched on the fundamental reason the new Constitution had been written—revenue. Then, why did he talk about amending the Constitution?

The painting shows ships in the city of Boston.
James Madison had proposed to impose tariffs on imports of many items. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

As soon as the House had a quorum and adopted a set of rules, James Madison was on his feet to propose the first national import tariffs on rum, wine, coffee, molasses, salt, tobacco, dried fish and tea, plus a variety of targeted tariffs which would favor countries willing to sign commercial treaties with the United States.

Madison could not easily wish away the ghost of Patrick Henry, and so on May 4, 1789, he “gave notice, that he intended to bring on the subject of amendments to the Constitution,” and by amendments, what he meant was the Bill of Rights Henry and George Mason had clamored for at the Virginia state ratifying convention.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A Suspicious James Madison

Madison had been suspicious of calls for amendments, whether at the state ratifying conventions or elsewhere, fearing as he did that, at best, “paper barriers against the power” of a government are usually worthless; and at worst, he was afraid that amendments would become a way of chipping away piece-by-piece the powers the Constitution had won for the national government.

He was even less enchanted with the demand for adding amendments in the form of a bill of rights. Once it had been agreed by the Constitutional Convention that the Constitution would be a grant of enumerated, rather than general, powers, the need for a bill of rights, which a general grant of powers could not touch, seemed pointless.

Madison had not been able to convince Virginians of that at the ratifying convention, and their ratification had come with attachments demanding a bill of rights. Unless Madison wanted to jeopardize his own political future with Virginia voters and feed more spite to Patrick Henry, he had every reason for changing his mind. Beside this, it occurred to Madison that an express bill of rights, coming as a series of amendments to the Constitution, “was neither improper nor altogether useless”.

Learn more about Patrick Henry’s convention.

James Madison’s Plans and Proposals

But the power Madison feared was not the power granted by the Constitution to the president or even to Congress; it was the power of lawless actions of the people at large, “against the majority in favor of the minority”. What Madison wanted in a bill of rights was not so much restraints on the national executive or the national legislature, but on the selfishness of humanity in general, which had shown in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and western Massachusetts that it was ominously capable, in the name of popular democracy or the will of the people, of picking the pockets of the honest and industrious to subsidize the spendthrift and violent.

In all, Madison had 19 amendments in mind, which he presented to the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, beginning with a rewriting of the preamble to include an appeal to the natural rights William Jefferson had identified in the Declaration of Independence, “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”.

Safeguarding the Rights of the People

A painting showing George Washington's triumphal entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783.
James Madison wanted the Constitution to guarantee the civil rights to the people of America, who had a lot of respect for George Washington. (Image: E.P. & L. Restein/Public domain)

The other amendments that Madison had sketched out would guarantee that “the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.” That “the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press shall be inviolable.” That “the people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling.” That “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Madison also added prohibitions against self-incriminations, against deprivation “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” against “all unreasonable searches and seizures,” and to placate the ever-suspicious partisans of the states a promise that, “The powers not delegated by this Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.”

Learn more about the Constitution and the state conventions.

Madison versus the House

Madison wanted the amendments inserted into the body of the Constitution at various relevant places; Roger Sherman objected that this would mutilate the Constitution he had signed in Philadelphia, and so he proposed to attach them at the end. Madison wanted swift action; the House vote to send the amendments to a committee promised delay. And even after the committee reported back Madison’s amendments in more-or-less the same form he had submitted them in July, the House then went into a committee of the whole for further wrangling on August 13.

Finally, on August 24, the House forwarded Madison’s “bill of rights,” now recast as 17 separate amendments but without the alterations to the preamble of the Constitution to the Senate. The Senate then did its own wrangling until September 14, condensing the list to 12, and on September 24, the House approved the Senate’s changes.

The whole document then had to go out to the states, and they took until March 1, 1792, to finish their ratifications. Even then, two of the twelve amendments failed of ratification; one of them would finally be ratified as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution only in 1992.

So, the Constitution now had a bill of rights, a task undertaken largely by the one man—James Madison—who had most vehemently opposed such a bill in the first place.

Common Questions about the Bill of Rights: A Humongous Challenge for James Madison

Q; What did James Madison present to the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789?

James Madison presented 19 amendments to the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, beginning with a rewriting of the preamble.

Q: What did James Madison plan to achieve through the Bill of Rights?

Through the Bill of Rights, James Madison wanted to put a restraint on the selfishness of humanity in general.

Q: Why did James Madison agree to include the Bill of Rights to the Constitution?

James Madison thought including the Bill of Rights won’t harm the framework of the Constitution.

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