J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

James Madison’s Bill of Rights

On 8 June 1789 James Madison arose in the U.S. House of Representatives and stated that the time had come to discuss amending the Constitution that had created that legislative body. After all, it had been meeting for two months already.

There was immediately a long debate on whether the House should go into a committee of the whole to keep its discussions private, and how such amendments would work, and so on. Ten whole pages of the House record later, Madison finally got to propose his amendments.

And they started out this way:
First.
That there be prefixed to the constitution a declaration—That all power is orginally vested in, and consequently derived from the people.

That government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.
Madison later said, “The first of these amendments, relates to what may be called a bill of rights…” So there we have it: Madison’s proposal for a Bill of Rights, derived mainly from George Mason.

That language looks nothing like what we know as the Bill of Rights. Even the ideas that the two texts express are quite different. (When we look for an official expression of the rights of “life and liberty” and the people’s power to “change their government,” we go back further to the Declaration of Independence.)

Obviously, when Madison thought of a Bill of Rights, he thought of a law expressing the fundamental relationship between people and government, not an enumeration of specific rights or legal protocols.

TOMORROW: So where did the U.S. Bill of Rights come from?

3 comments:

RBK said...

Do you have any links on your blog to The Federalist Papers? I saw them mentioned once, but nothing else. With all of the great posts about the Bill of Rights lately, it got me to start thinking about the Constitution (the drafting, support and the opposition to it).

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't had much to say about what we now call The Federalist Papers. (They were originally published under the pseudonym "Publius" and then collected as The Federalist. The term by which we now know them was coined in the early 1900s.) I'm more interested in the approach of the Revolution, no New Englanders were involved in those essays, and many other writers have already analyzed them well. But if I come across something new and interesting about those essays, I'll post it.

RBK said...

Ok. Thank you :)