YESTERYEAR: First Federal Congress Of The United States Approved 12 Amendments


In 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States approved 12 amendments to the recently ratified Constitution. Ten of them would eventually become the Bill of Rights that we know today.

George Mason, a statesman, and delegate from Virginia was deeply disappointed in the United States Constitution. He had helped craft it with much optimism in the beginning but became troubled by what he saw as too much power concentrated in central government authority, and no protection for individual rights. In late summer, 1787, Mason wrote to his son that he “would sooner chop off [his] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” On September 15, 1787, the final vote was made to approve the Constitution, and Mason was one of only three who protested, calling for a “bill of rights” to be added to the document.

But Mason and his fellow anti-Federalists didn’t give up, and others joined them. Over the next two years, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison also took up the cause. Patrick Henry felt the Constitution didn’t offer sufficient safeguards against tyranny, and asked, “What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances[?]”

In the summer of 1789, Madison introduced a set of 17 amendments before Congress. These amendments were narrowed down to 12, which were approved on September 25 and sent to the states for ratification. Only 10 of these were ratified by the required two-thirds of the states, and they became our Bill of Rights. The document protects, among other things, an American citizen’s right to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, a well-organized militia, and a speedy and public trial. It also grants freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, the quartering of troops, and self-incrimination. Finally, Article Ten declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

In the end, it was a document crafted by George Mason that inspired much of the language, structure, and content of the Bill of Rights. Mason had drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights for his home state’s constitution in 1776. Inspired by an English Bill of Rights from the 17th century, it was the first constitutional protection of individual rights in North America. It established the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of the two amendments that were dropped from the original bill, one of them never passed. It established a formula for determining a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives, where a state’s number of representatives depends upon its population.

A minimum number of 435 seats was set by statute in 1911, and the population of the United States has grown so much since then that even the least populous districts have more than the minimum number of voters. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary and unlikely to pass.

The second of the “failed” amendments prohibited Congress members from voting to raise their own pay without allowing their constituents to have a say. Since there was no statute of limitations on ratifying the original 12 amendments, this one did eventually pass. Michigan was the state that pushed it over the two-thirds majority, on May 7, 1992 — more than 200 years after it was originally proposed



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