Bill of Rights

From Third to First

From the start, the American people played a role in elevating the First Amendment. If it had been left to Congress, today’s First Amendment would have been the third.

When George Washington became America’s first president in 1789, two states had not joined the union under the U.S. Constitution: North Carolina and Rhode Island. A major stumbling block for these antifederalists was the Constitution’s lack of a Bill of Rights.

This led Congressman James Madison to call on Congress to pass amendments to the Constitution. After analyzing hundreds of possibilities, Congress settled on twelve amendments to be ratified by the people through their state legislatures.

The original first two amendments focused not on the rights of the people but on Congress, specifically its apportionment power and salary. Not surprisingly, these two amendments failed to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

This rejection elevated the Third Amendment into the First Amendment. The First Amendment and the other nine amendments became law on December 15, 1791, when Virginia’s general assembly became the final state needed to ratify them.


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