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James Madison, by Gilbert Stuart, 1805–1807

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III

James Madison, by Gilbert Stuart, 1805–1807

Amending the Constitution

What did the newly written Constitution say about freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? Nothing. The drafters of the Constitution were split over whether to list individual rights. Most felt that these were matters for state or local governments. During the first congressional election campaign, however, voters changed the minds of many lawmakers—including Virginia’s James Madison, a primary framer of the Constitution.

Congressman Madison agreed that the Constitution should protect individual rights. But he and others worried that a new round of amendments could get out of hand, reshaping the government before it had a chance to prove itself. Madison carefully boiled down for the House more than 200 proposed amendments into 19 changes listing basic rights. Congress eventually passed 12. The states ratified 10 of these amendments—today’s Bill of Rights.

"[T]he first Congress ... ought to prepare and recommend to the States for ratification, the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude, the freedom of the press, trials by jury, security against general warrants &c."
— Representative James Madison of Virginia, 1789