How many amendments are in the Bill of Rights? If you answered 10, you are correct. But if you visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., you will see that the original copy of the Bill of Rights sent to states for ratification had 12 amendments.
Fast Facts: The Bill of Rights
- The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.
- The Bill of Rights establishes specific restrictions and prohibitions on the powers of the federal government.
- The Bill of Rights was created in response to demands from several states for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties already considered natural rights, such as the rights to speak and worship freely.
- The Bill of Rights, originally in the form of 12 amendments, was submitted to the legislatures of the states for their consideration on September 28, 1789, and was ratified by the required three-fourths (then 11) states in the form of 10 amendments on December 15, 1791.
What is the Bill of Rights?
The "Bill of Rights" is the popular name for a joint resolution passed by the first U.S. Congress on September 25, 1789. The resolution proposed the first set of amendments to the Constitution.
Then as now, the process of amending the Constitution required the resolution to be "ratified" or approved by at least three-fourths of the states. Unlike the 10 amendments we know and cherish today as the Bill of Rights, the resolution sent to the states for ratification in 1789 proposed 12 amendments.
When the votes of the 11 states were finally counted on December 15, 1791, only the last 10 of the 12 amendments had been ratified. Thus, the original third amendment, establishing freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition, and the right to a fair and speedy trial became today's First Amendment.
Imagine 6,000 Members of Congress
Rather than establishing rights and freedoms, the first amendment as voted on by the states in the original Bill of Rights proposed a ratio by which to determine the number of people to be represented by each member of the House of Representatives.
The original first amendment (not ratified) read:
"After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons."
Had the amendment been ratified, the number of members of the House of Representatives could by now be over 6,000, compared to the present 435. As apportioned by the latest Census, each member of the House currently represents about 650,000 people.
The Original 2nd Amendment: Money
The original second amendment as voted on, but rejected by the states in 1789, addressed congressional pay, rather than the right of the people to possess firearms. The original second amendment (not ratified) read:
"No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."
Though not ratified at the time, the original second amendment finally made its way into the Constitution in 1992, ratified as the 27th Amendment, a full 203 years after it was first proposed.
The Third Became the First
As a result of the failure of the states to ratify the original first and second amendments in 1791, the original third amendment became a part of the Constitution as the First Amendment we cherish today.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 considered but defeated a proposal to include a bill of rights in the initial version of the Constitution. This resulted in a heated debate during the ratification process.
The Federalists, who supported the Constitution as written, felt a bill of rights was not needed because the Constitution intentionally limited the powers of the federal government to interfere with the rights of the states, most of which had already adopted bills of rights.
The Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution, argued in favor of the Bill of Rights, believing that the central government could not exist or function without a clearly established list of rights guaranteed to the people.
Some of the states hesitated to ratify the Constitution without a bill of rights. During the ratification process, the people and the state legislatures called for the first Congress serving under the new Constitution in 1789 to consider and put forward a bill of rights.
According to the National Archives, the then 11 states began the process of ratifying the Bill of Rights by holding a referendum, asking its voters to approve or reject each of the 12 proposed amendments. Ratification of any amendment by at least three-quarters of the states meant acceptance of that amendment.
Six weeks after receiving the Bill of Rights resolution, North Carolina ratified the Constitution. (North Carolina had resisted ratifying the Constitution because it did not guarantee individual rights.)
During this process, Vermont became the first state to join the Union after the Constitution was ratified, and Rhode Island (the lone holdout) also joined. Each state tallied its votes and forwarded the results to Congress.
Sources and Further Reference
- “The Charters of Freedom: The Bill of Rights.” Washington, DC. National Archives and Records Administration.
- “James Madison's Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, June 8, 1789.” Washington, DC. National Archives and Records Administration.
- Lloyd, Gordon. “Introduction to the Constitutional Convention.” Teaching American History.