Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: The Origin and Evolution of the Bill of Rights

This post is by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

On December 20, 1787, Thomas Jefferson said, “A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” Many Americans take for granted the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. However, the story and order of the initially proposed twelve amendments submitted to states for ratification offer an interesting case study for students to analyze and discuss why certain rights were included as a protection against federal encroachment upon citizens’ freedom and how they apply to us today.

Image of page one of the Bill of Rights, 1789

Image of page two of the Bill of Rights, 1789

Image of page three of the Bill of Rights, 1789

James Madison originally believed the U.S. Constitution as written was complete and required no specific guarantees protecting individual rights against government abuse. In Federalist Paper 48 he wrote,

…Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments [branches of government], in the constitution of the government, and to trust these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?”

Clearly, he had little trust in listing individual rights on “parchment barriers” as a limit on government, but favored allowing the constitutional structures of checks and balances and separation of powers to protect citizens’ freedom. As anti-Federalist efforts mounted against the proposed Constitution, Madison realized adding a Bill of Rights would help ensure ratification of the Constitution.

Originally, seventeen amendments were submitted to the House of Representatives and twelve survived debate and approval in the Senate. On September 25, 1789, the House and Senate passed a joint resolution approving twelve amendments for ratification to the state legislatures as outlined in Article V of the Constitution. The states ratified ten.

First Page of the Bill of Rights Draft Sent to the States, 1789

A bill of rights as provided in the ten original amendments to the constitution of the United States in force. December 1791

  • Allow time for students to evaluate the original wording of Madison’s seventeen proposed amendments given to the House of Representatives for debate. Ask students: What additions were made to Madison’s original draft  and what do the order and specific guarantees reveal about importance placed upon certain freedoms?
  • Ask students to determine what guarantees and specific wording are included in the House version that are not in the Bill of Rights draft sent to the states.
  • Point out to students that Amendments I and II in the Bill of Rights draft sent to the states did not get ratified by states. Ask them why they think that might be. Tell students that Amendment II in Madison’s draft to the House actually was passed in 1992 as the 27th amendment.
  • Using the final version of the Bill of Rights, invite students to reorganize the amendments in order of importance to Americans and defend their choices. Encourage students to choose at least one amendment they might rewrite to improve its clarity or relevance to contemporary America.

Focusing students on the origin and evolution of the Bill of Rights helps them to evaluate both what rights the founders valued in the new republic and how those rights contrast with the needs of contemporary America.

Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: Federalism and the Origin of Federal Air Pollution Policy 

Environmental case studies such as Donora, Pennsylvania, offer students the opportunity to evaluate the system of federalism in context of a historical event. In addition, this event may stretch students’ understanding of when and why society began to focus on the impact of air pollution on the environment.