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The Bill of Rights – and Ratification
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This issue contains twelve proposed Constitutional amendments that Congress sent to the states for ratification. Following Virginia’s vote in December 1791, the required number of states had passed ten of the twelve amendments. On March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sent a circular to the governors of the states including the articles that had been ratified, which became the Bill of Rights, as well as the two proposed amendments that had not been ratified. The fate of the remaining two amendments was still in question, as the action of the Massachusetts legislature in 1790 had not been transmitted to Jefferson.

[BILL OF RIGHTS]. Newspaper. Columbian Centinel, March 14, 1792. Boston, Mass.: Benjamin Russell. 4 pp., 10½ x 16½ in.

Inventory #25046       Price: $6,500

The Convention of a number of States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of publick confidence in the government will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.” (p1/c1)

Following the text of the twelve proposed amendments, a note at the end declares, “The Ratificatory Acts of the Legislature of the several States, will appear in succeeding Centinels.” (p1/c2)

Historical Background

New Hampshire and Virginia became the ninth and tenth states to ratify the proposed Constitution in June 1788, launching the new federal government. In their debates on ratification, several state conventions proposed amendments. Massachusetts proposed nine, South Carolina adopted five declarations and resolves, New Hampshire proposed twelve, and Virginia proposed a twenty-point bill of rights and twenty proposed amendments. When New York ratified in July 1788, it proposed a twenty-five-point bill of rights and thirty-one amendments.

James Madison sifted through all the proposals, and introduced several. After debates in the House and Senate, and several drafts, in September 1789, Congress approved twelve amendments to the U.S. Constitution and sent them to the states for ratification. Between November 1789 and June 1790, nine states adopted ten of those Amendments. Vermont became the fourteenth state on March 3, 1791, and adopted the ten amendments on November 3. On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to adopt the ten amendments, thus providing the necessary three-fourths of the states to put the Bill of Rights into effect.

Ironically, both houses of the Massachusetts legislature had approved proposed amendments three through eleven in February 1790, but the action was not reported to the Secretary of the Commonwealth, nor to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson inquired in August 1791, Massachusetts legislator Christopher Gore responded that “it does not appear that the Committee ever reported any bill.”[1] Both branches of the Connecticut legislature apparently also approved all twelve amendments in May 1790, but the ratification document was misfiled and not reported. (Though it was unnecessary to do so, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia formally adopted the amendments in 1939, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Congress’ vote.)

Additional Content

This issue includes a reader’s query about the “large compensations” Congress allowed to Revenue Department officers; LaFayette’s “pecuniary sacrifices of an enormous kind” in service to America during the Revolution; a memorial from Philadelphia merchants asking Congress to protect the India and China trade; secret debates on the bill for “further and more effectual provision for the defensive protection of the frontiers” (the expense of which Hamilton used as a back-door way to enact his Report on Manufactures proposals); notice that an expanded copyright bill was proposed; the invention of an “Air-Gun” by a young Rhode Island man; an obituary for Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791), the Russian military leader and consort of Empress Catherine the Great; and advertisements (including two for the recovery of runaway apprentices), notices, and other news. A note from New York complains that certain states that protest the ability of U.S. Congressmen to sit on the board of the Bank of the United States do not similarly object to Congressmen who sit on the boards of their state banks. This note is headed by a great quote, presaging today’s partisan double-standards: “one may steal a horse, while the other may not look over a hedge.”

*This item is also being offered in part II of The Alexander Hamilton Collection


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Christopher Gore, August 8, 1791; Christopher Gore to Thomas Jefferson, August 18, 1791.


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