The Creation of the Bill of Rights: “Retouching the Canvas”

This lesson will focus on the arguments either for or against the addition of a Bill of Rights between 1787 and 1789. By examining the views of prominent Americans in original documents, students will see that the issue at the heart of the debate was whether a Bill of Rights was necessary to secure and fulfill the objects of the American Revolution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Students will also gain an understanding of the origins of the Bill of Rights and how it came to be part of what Thomas Jefferson called "the American mind," as well as a greater awareness of the difficulties that proponents had to overcome in order to add the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.

When the Constitutional Convention completed its work in September of 1787, the document submitted to the people for ratification did not include a bill of rights. The lack of an enumeration of reserved rights and powers proved to be a source of great debate between Americans, who had long been accustomed to the idea that such declarations were essential to protect the liberties of the people against the abuses of government. 

In the state ratification debates that followed the Convention, Federalists (who supported the proposed Constitution) and Anti-federalists (who opposed it) offered their arguments for or against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. Federalists generally believed that a bill of rights was unnecessary, if not dangerous to the liberties of the people. Anti-federalists, on the other hand, launched vociferous objections to the Constitution, claiming that without a declaration of reserved rights, no people could long remain free, even under a well-constructed system of government established with good intentions.

Thomas Jefferson, although not an Anti-federalist, believed that a bill of rights was necessary to "retouch the canvas" of the proposed Constitution, thus creating a system of government that would best fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which states that the first object of good government is to secure the rights of its citizens. James Madison, one of the chief authors of the Constitution, eventually agreed that a Bill of Rights should be added, although for reasons different from those of Jefferson. Madison understood that such an addition would build confidence among the people in their new government, and allay their fears that, without a bill of rights, all that Americans had fought for during the Revolution – limited self-government, equality and liberty – would be jeopardized. 

Guiding Questions

Was a Bill of Rights necessary to secure the principles of the American Revolution and complete the work of the Constitutional Convention?

Learning Objectives

Identify the origins of the idea of a Bill of Rights.

Articulate the key similarities and differences between the English Bill of Rights and the declarations of rights contained in the original state constitutions.

Understand how the American idea of a bill of rights was influenced by the principles of the Declaration of Independence.