15 Facts About the Bill of Rights
December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, so let’s celebrate by exploring the amendments that helped shape America.
1. IT OWES A LOT TO MAGNA CARTA.
Some of the sentiments in our bill of rights are at least 800 years old. In 1215, King John of England had a serious uprising on his hands. For many years, discontentment festered among his barons, many of whom loathed the King and his sky-high taxes. On May 17, a rebellious faction led by Robert Fitzwalter captured London, forcing John to negotiate.
Their talks produced one of the most significant legal documents ever written. The King and his barons composed a 63-clause agreement which would—ostensibly—impose certain limits on royal rule. Among these laws, the best-known gave English noblemen the right to a fair trial. They called their groundbreaking peace treaty Magna Carta, or “The Great Charter.”
The original version didn’t last long, though. John persuaded Pope Innocent III to invalidate the document and, within three months, His Holiness did just that. The next year, King John’s 9-year-old son, King Henry III, issued an abridged version of Magna Carta to appease the barons, and in 1225 enforced a new and revised Magna Carta. Today, citizens of the U.K. are protected by three of the 1225 version’s clauses, such as the aforementioned right to a trial by jury.
Magna Carta’s influence has also extended far beyond Britain. Across the Atlantic, its language flows through the U.S. Constitution. Over half of the articles in America’s Bill of Rights are directly or indirectly descended from clauses in said charter. For instance, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that “private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Article 28 of Magna Carta makes a similar statement about the seizure of “corn or other goods.”
2. ANOTHER BIG INFLUENCE WAS THE ENGLISH BILL OF RIGHTS.
Issued in 1689, this Parliamentary Act made several guarantees that were later echoed by the first 10 U.S. constitutional amendments. For instance, the English Bill of Rights forbids “cruel and unusual punishments” while ensuring the “right of the subjects to petition the king.”
3. THE U.S. VERSION WAS CHAMPIONED BY AN OFT-IGNORED FOUNDING FATHER.
There’s a decent chance that you’ve never heard of George Mason. By founding father standards, this Virginian has been largely overlooked. But if it weren’t for Mason, the Constitution might have never been given its venerated Bill of Rights.
Back in 1776, Mason was part of a committee that drafted Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. “[All] men,” the finished product said, “are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights… namely the enjoyment of life and liberty.” Sound familiar? It should. As everybody knows, Thomas Jefferson would write another, more famous declaration that year. When he did so, he was heavily influenced by the document Mason spearheaded.
Fast-forward to 1787. With the Constitutional Convention wrapping up in Philadelphia, Mason argued that a bill of inalienable rights should be added. This idea was flatly rejected by the State Delegates. So, in protest, Mason refused to sign the completed Constitution.
4. MASON FOUND AN ALLY IN THE “GERRY” OF “GERRYMANDERING.”
At the convention, the motion to include a bill of rights wasn’t made by Mason, although he seconded it. Instead, credit belongs to one Elbridge Gerry, who had also withheld his signature from the Constitution. He’d go on to become a notorious figure during his tenure as the governor of Massachusetts. A stauch Democratic-Republican, Gerry was governor during the blatantly partisan re-drawing of the Bay State’s congressional districts. These days, we call this unfair political maneuver “gerrymandering.”
5. THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A HUGE PROPONENT ...
The Sage of Monticello sided with Mason. Following the Constitution’s approval, Jefferson offered a few comments to his friend James Madison (whom history has called its father). “I do not like … the omission of a bill of rights,” he wrote. “Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
6. ... AND SO WAS JOHN ADAMS.
Adams was away in Great Britain when the Constitution was being created. Upon reading its contents, he proclaimed that “A Declaration of Rights I Wish to see with all my heart, though I am sensible of the Difficulty in framing one, in which all the States can agree.”
7. AT FIRST, JAMES MADISON THOUGHT THAT IT WOULD BE USELESS.
From the onset, this future president admired the principle behind a bill of rights. Still, he initially saw no point in creating one. Madison explained his position to Jefferson in October 1788, writing, “My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights … At the same time, I have never thought [its] omission a material defect.” But Madison eventually changed his tune. After becoming a congressman in 1789, he formally introduced the amendments that would comprise the current bill of rights.
8. BEFORE HE COULD INTRODUCE THE BILL OF RIGHTS, MADISON HAD TO DEFEAT JAMES MONROE.
Madison won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after running against the man who would become his Oval Office successor. Both candidates acted with civility: While on the campaign trail, they regularly dined together and even shared sleeping quarters.
9. CONGRESS PASSED 12 AMENDMENTS, BUT TWO WERE LATER EXCLUDED.
Originally, Representative Madison presented 19 amendments. On August 24, 1789, the House green-lit 17 of them. That September, the Senate made some heavy edits, trimming these down to an even dozen, which the states then looked over. In the end, numbers three through 12 were approved and collectively became our Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.
10. AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT GOT ONE OF THOSE AXED AMENDMENTS RATIFIED IN 1992.
Better late than never. The second proposed amendment would have restricted Congress’ ability to give itself a pay raise or cut. No law that tweaked the salaries of its members would take effect until after the next Congress had begun. Sensible as this idea sounds, the amendment wasn’t ratified by the required three-fourths majority of U.S. states. So, for 202 years, it was stuck in limbo.
Enter Gregory Watson. His rollercoaster-like journey with the dormant proposal began in 1982. Then a student at the University of Texas, Watson was researching a term paper when he discovered this Congressional Pay Amendment. As he dug deeper, the undergrad found that it was still “technically pending before state legislatures.”
So Watson mounted an aggressive letter-writing campaign. Thanks to his urging, state after state finally ratified the amendment until, at last, over 38 had done so. After a bit of legal wrangling with Congress, on May 20, 1992, the constitution was updated to include it as the 27th (and most recent) amendment. (Watson, by the way, got a C on that term paper.)
11. SOME OF THE ORIGINAL COPIES WERE PROBABLY DESTROYED.
During his first term, President Washington and Congress had 14 official handwritten replicas of the Bill of Rights made. At present, two are conspicuously unaccounted for.
One copy was retained by the federal government while the rest were sent off to the 11 states as well as Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had yet to ratify. Subsequently, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Georgia all lost theirs somehow. It’s believed that the Empire State’s was burned in a 1911 fire while Georgia’s likely went up in smoke during the Civil War.
In 1945, a long-lost original copy—experts aren’t sure which—was gifted to the Library of Congress. Forty-nine years earlier, the New York Public Library had obtained another. Because it’s widely believed that this one originally belonged to Pennsylvania, the document is currently being shared between the Keystone State and the NYPL until 2020, when New York will have it for 60 percent of the time and Pennsylvania for the rest.
12. NORTH CAROLINA’S COPY MAY HAVE BEEN STOLEN BY A CIVIL WAR SOLDIER.
During the spring of 1865, Raleigh was firmly under the control of pro-Union troops. According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office in that city, “Sometime during the occupation, a soldier in Gen. William Sherman’s army allegedly took North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of rights [from the state capitol] and carried it away.”
Afterward, it changed hands several times and eventually came into antique dealer Wayne Pratt’s possession. When the FBI learned of his plan to sell the priceless parchment, operatives seized it. In 2007, the copy went on a well-publicized tour of North Carolina before returning to Raleigh—hopefully for good.
13. THREE STATES DIDN’T RATIFY IT UNTIL 1939.
To celebrate the Constitution’s 150th anniversary, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia formally gave the Bill of Rights the approval they’d withheld for well over a century.
14. THE BILL OF RIGHTS’S LEAST LITIGATED AMENDMENT IS THE THIRD.
Thanks to this one, soldiers cannot legally be quartered inside your home without your consent. Since colonial Americans had lived in fear of being suddenly forced to house and feed British troops, the amendment was warmly received during the late 1700s. Today, however, it’s rarely invoked. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has never based a decision upon it, so the American Bar Association once called this amendment the “runt piglet” of the constitution.
15. BILL OF RIGHTS DAY DATES BACK TO 1941.
On November 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged America’s citizenry to celebrate December 15 as “Bill of Rights Day” in honor of its anniversary:
“I call upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate.”
“It is especially fitting,” he added, “that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn.”