On June 8, 1789 James Madison, the congressman representing Virginia’s 5th District, rose to speak in a session of the First Congress and advocated passage of a slate of amendments to the Constitution that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights.
On December 15, 1791, the requisite number of states (three-quarters, or nine states) ratified 10 of the proposed amendments and the Bill of Rights became the constitutional law of the land.
Between the lines of this brief, yet accurate, summation of the events that led to the passage of the first 10 amendments are years of conflict, compromise, collaboration, and conviction. Conviction on the one side that without the protections afforded by an explicit Bill of Rights, future federal officeholders would march through that gap and rob the states and the people of all power.
The Anti-Federalists passionately warned that the new government would extend the limits of its influence and would consolidate all power unto itself unless some additional protection was provided in the Constitution that served as the source of its power.
On the other side of the debate, however, Federalists argued that such specific protections were unnecessary because the new constitution granted no authority to the federal government to commit such abuses.
Besides, the Federalists contended, if a list of essential rights were written inevitably some right or other would be omitted and the central government would act as if such a right did not exist and, as the Anti-Federalists correctly pointed out, fill in that blank with oppression.
Originally, James Madison was one of the chief opponents of adding a bill of rights to the recently ratified Constitution. Since the days of the convention in 1787, Madison argued that a bill of rights was redundant because any power not explicitly granted to the federal government in the Constitution would be retained by the people (as inherent in their natural right of self-sovereignty) or by the states as the intermediate expression of those rights.
In spite of the strength and sway of his principles, James Madison was a man of extraordinary political sense. He believed that the Constitution he helped craft in Philadelphia was good and would establish a republican form of government that was dynamic in requisite ways and limited in such a way as would preserve republican self-rule. With this in mind, Madison could not bear to see the fruit of this historic labor thrown out for lack of a restatement of rights.
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