June 8, 2022

James Madison Proposes the Bill of Rights

James Madison Proposes the Bill of Rights

June 8, 1789. American politician James Madison proposes to Congress the Bill of Rights, establishing what will become the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.


Cold Open - Persecution of Baptist Preachers

It’s 1772 in a corridor in a jail in Culpeper County in the British Colony of Virginia; about three years before the American Revolution.

A Baptist preacher holds his head high as a jailer marches him toward his cell. He tries to ignore the other prisoners as they bang against their doors and shout insults.

The jailer opens the preacher’s cell and shoves him inside. Preacher stumbles, nearly falling to the ground. But he turns back to the jailer, and gives him a rye smile, and tells the jailer he forgives him.

The jailer rolls his eyes… and then slams the cell door shut and locks it, before disappearing down the corridor.

The preacher sits in silence for a few minutes listening to the shouting of the other prisoners. The insults and apathetes don't get him angry. But he's good at a type of shouting of his own. He gets up, sticks his face between the bars of his cell, and starts preaching the gospel.

Annoyed, the other prisoners raise their voices further trying to shout him down, but the preacher isn’t deterred. As the noise in the jail cell rises, so does the preacher’s voice as he gives the word of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Then, the Preacher hears a loud scraping sound. He looks down the corridor to see the jailer dragging a table toward him. The jailer positions the table directly in front of the preacher's cell. The preacher keeps sermonizing as the jailer climbs up on the table, drops his trousers, and urinates onto the preacher’s face. The jailer burst out laughing. The other prisoners hoot and holler. But the preacher doesn’t relent. He still holds his head high and finishes his sermon.

Under British rule, the Virginia Colony is dominated by the Anglican Church. At the Church’s behest, local officials have made a habit of jailing and tormenting preachers from other religious groups, especially Baptists.

In the mid-1770s, the plight of the Baptists catches the eye of a young Virginian with political aspirations. James Madison calls the actions of the Anglican Church, “that diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution.”

And in the wake of the Revolutionary War, as America finds its footing as a new, independent nation, Madison will make fighting for religious freedom his primary political cause. Over time, he will expand his beliefs to include a range of individual freedoms. And after the United States ratifies its Constitution, Madison’s principles will inspire him to propose to Congress a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights on June 8th, 1789.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is June 8th, 1789: James Madison Proposes the Bill of Rights.

Act One: Madison’s Push for Religious Freedom in VA

It’s May 1776 at the capitol building in Williamsburg, Virginia; one year into the American Revolutionary War.

George Mason, a planter and politician with a keen mind reads over his draft of Virginia’s so-called “Declaration of Rights.”

Earlier this month, delegates from Virginia voted unanimously to ask the Continental Congress to declare America’s freedom from Britain. At the same time, they formed a committee to create an independent Virginia. Mason is one of several committee members tasked with writing the Declaration of Rights. But Mason has never been a fan of collaboration, so he’s taken it upon himself to pen the majority of the draft.

And upon reading it, the rest of his committee is impressed. Mason‘s writing speaks to the free spirit of mankind. Using phrases like, “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights.” Some of Mason’s writing is so inspiring that it will find its way, almost word for word, into the United States' Declaration of Independence.

But in his Declaration of Rights for Virginia, Mason has also written that "the State must practice the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” That phrase grabbed the attention of one of his fellow committee members.

James Madison is thrilled that Mason has highlighted religion as part of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. But Madison immediately raises concerns with Mason’s language. Madison knows the Anglican Church is the dominant religious group in Virginia. He fears they won’t tolerate any beliefs different from their own. Madison argues that the word “toleration” cannot be defined in legal terms. He knows that judges' ideas of what constitutes “tolerance” can vary greatly. So Madison asks for time to make changes to Mason’s writing and to propose a new version of his own.

For the next several days, Madison toils, trying to find the right language but he isn’t just parsing words. He’s trying to articulate one of his core, philosophical beliefs. Madison doesn’t think the government grants people the right to worship freely; he thinks that right is innate to mankind. Madison wants to shift the focus from the State to the individual. And finally, he thinks, he finds the perfect words to express his beliefs. Madison writes, “All men are equally entitled to enjoy the full and free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Madison then includes language stating that religious practice can only be dictated by reason and conviction; not through force or violence.

Madison needs the majority of the committee to approve his changes if he wants this language to appear in the Declaration of Rights. But Madison is worried that some staunch Anglicans on the committee won’t see things his way. By making religion about the individual, Madison is taking power away from the state, and the Anglican Church. Luckily, Madison isn’t just a philosopher, he’s a skilled politician.

But he's only 25 years old, and one of the youngest members on the committee. He decides he needs older, more respected committee members to present his case for him.

First, Madison wins over a lawyer named Patrick Henry, considered by many to be the greatest American orator of the time. Then, Madison convinces his cousin, who also sits on the committee and is a well-respected layman in the Anglican Church. With his cousin and Patrick Henry on his side, Madison is then able to sway the majority of the committee, including many of the most devoted Anglicans.

On June 12th, 1776, the committee approves Virginia’s Declaration of Rights with Madison’s changes. Madison uses his first political victory to bolster his career and widen his focus beyond religious freedom to include other individual rights he holds dear.

And throughout that year, Madison joins his friend, Virginia politician Thomas Jefferson, to speak out on the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And as the Revolutionary War progresses, Madison occupies himself with thoughts of the future. He envisions a free America where individual rights are both celebrated and protected by the government.

Madison’s gifts as a public speaker and his commitment to personal rights make him a favorite among the people of Virginia. And his skills as a politician and connection with powerful leaders like Thomas Jefferson make him a highly sought-after voice in the halls of the government.

So soon after the Revolutionary War, when the United States is trying to find its way, Madison is an obvious choice to represent the new state, Virginia, and negotiations to build the country's founding documents. In 1787, Virginia will send James Madison to the Constitutional Convention. There, he will help shape the framework of American government. But to get the constitution of the United States finalized and ratified, Madison will have to weigh his own philosophical beliefs against the bitter political realities of the era. And in the end, to achieve his goals, Madison will choose compromise, and politics will win the day.

Act Two: The Constitutional Convention

It’s September 12th, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia; in the closing days of the Constitutional Convention.

James Madison watches fellow Virginia delegate George Mason take the floor.

The two men are friends and very familiar with each other having worked together on Virginia's Declaration of Rights. But today Madison is anxious. With Thomas Jefferson in Paris serving as Ambassador to France, Madison has taken on a major leadership role in crafting the US Constitution at the convention. Madison has contributed so much writing and guidance, that he will come to be known as the “Father of the Constitution.” But today Madison knows that George Mason isn’t satisfied with the document, and he worries Mason might derail months of work.

At its core, the Constitution is designed to make up for perceived shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation, the US’ framework for government since 1781. Many delegates believe the Articles gave too much power to the states, they want a stronger federal government. But George Mason has other concerns.  If this new document is to give the Federal government more power, he wants to enshrine the rights of citizens in the Constitution to protect them.

Madison listens as Mason speaks on the inalienable freedoms he believes all men share. Mason’s words hearken back to much of what he wrote in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. And Mason is adamant that the Constitution must include a Bill of Rights for individual citizens that the government cannot violate.

But the negative reaction to Mason is immediate. Some delegates argued that it’s impossible to define which rights should and shouldn’t be included in the Bill. And most in the hall fear that a lengthy debate on the matter will stall the convention. They want to wrap things up and send the Constitution to the states to be ratified.

As Madison watches all of this unfold, he’s torn. He agrees with much of what Mason has said. But Madison is also a pragmatic politician. He can see from the reaction in the room that Mason’s proposed Bill of Rights will never pass, and that it threatens to prolong the convention maybe even the Constitution itself.

So when George Mason’s proposal comes up for a vote, Madison joins the majority of delegates and rejects it. Mason is furious. And when Madison returns home to Virginia days later, he already regrets his decision.

In the fall of 1787, Madison watches as states debate the ratification of the new US Constitution. He quickly sees that battle lines are drawn between those who want a strong federal government and those who want to limit federal power. Soon, the question of a Bill of Rights takes center stage in the argument.

Many politicians in favor of a limited federal government say a Bill of Rights will provide individual Americans guaranteed freedoms that the government can never take away. But many on the other side see things differently.

Madison looks to the writings of Alexander Hamilton as the purest example of an anti-Bill of Rights stance. Hamilton is a supporter of a strong federal government and suggests a Bill of Rights is dangerous. He says if rights are vaguely defined, they can easily be violated. Hamilton proclaims, “The Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.”

A bitter debate rages and Madison fears the two sides will never come together. And indeed, two states - North Carolina and Rhode Island - make it clear they will refuse to join the union unless a Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution. But even when it becomes clear that the constitution will eventually be ratified without a Bill of Rights, Madison still wonders if he made the wrong decision when he voted George Mason's suggestion down.

Madison has spent much of his career fighting for individual rights, but now he worries that Americans could be denied those rights and that he is part of the reason why. Feeling rudderless, Madison looks for guidance from an old friend.

In December of 1787, Madison corresponds with Thomas Jefferson, who is still in Paris. Jefferson makes his feelings clear, writing, “a Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on Earth.”

After Madison corresponds with Jefferson, he does a bit of soul-searching, and ultimately comes to believe that fighting for a Bill of Rights is warranted, both philosophically and politically. Because soon, America does ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights and without North Carolina and Rhode Island. Madison knows he needs to do something big.

In early 1789, Madison runs for United States Congress on a platform of amending the Constitution to include a Bill of Rights. And after he’s elected, Madison will make good on his campaign promise, fighting to convince Congress to take action.

Act Three: Madison’s Proposal to Congress

It’s June 8th, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City.

Congressman James Madison takes the floor before the newly formed US House of Representatives. 

Madison’s voice is steady and commanding as he paints a picture of what he hopes his young nation can achieve. Madison says a Bill of Rights will speak to the ideal of Justice that the United States holds dear and that it will guarantee free speech and a free press, thus showing the world that this government is not tyrannical. Madison also says the Bill of Rights will help convince Rhode Island and North Carolina to join the union, making the country even stronger. Madison concludes his argument by stating that his proposed amendments will “expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

Then, Madison lays out 19 different amendments that he hopes will make up the Bill of Rights. He spends the next several months shepherding his amendments through Congress, again relying on his political savvy to make necessary alliances, cuts, and compromises.

And eventually, the Bill of Rights is sent to the states for ratification with 12 proposed amendments. The states reject Madison’s first two, which concern the number of constituents per representative and congressional pay. But eventually, on December 15th, 1791, the Bill of Rights, containing the first ten amendments, is ratified.

And the collection of 10 amendments guaranteeing certain rights to all American citizens is revolutionary in its time, but it also excludes many Americans on account of race and gender. Over the past two centuries, these amendments have been revisited and expounded on, in attempts to revive its essential freedoms to all Americans.

And though many politicians and political thinkers had a hand in shaping the Bill of Rights, James Madison is lauded today for creating this core component of American government, and for laying a strong foundation for freedom, when he proposed the Bill of Rights to Congress on June 8th, 1789. 


Next on History Daily, June 9th, 1973. Secretariat makes horse racing history by winning the Belmont Stakes by an unprecedented 31 lengths, capturing the highly coveted Triple Crown.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.