Handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights; slightly browned paper with faded text

Bill of Rights
Thomas Addis Emmet Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division


Bill of Rights

Transcript below

Anna Deavere Smith: This is one of the original, official copies of what would become the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. In 1789, President Washington sent a copy to each of the original 13 states for approval. 

Look closely and you’ll notice there are 12 amendments listed here, not ten; the first two were actually rejected at that time. It might be surprising that our precious First Amendment rights—freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government—were originally listed third.

Today, the Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of American civil liberties. But in 1789, many political leaders weren’t sure a bill of rights was necessary—or even a good idea. Even James Madison, the drafter of the bill, was initially ambivalent. But he came to see the usefulness of a bill of rights: not only to appease those worried about a federal government with too much power over the states, but also in providing extra protection for individual freedoms, or as he put it, “additional guards in favour of liberty.” 

Of course it’s taken centuries of agitation and sacrifice by many for those “guards” to come closer to working for everyone, regardless of race, sex, or circumstance. But it’s the Bill of Rights that enabled the Constitution to become a living document, adaptable to changing times, and a more inclusive notion of "We the People."

End of Transcript

We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Carol Berkin of the City University of New York and Dr. Mark Boonshoft of Duquesne University.

No copyright: United States