James Madison Keeps a Campaign Promise

In June of 1789 (my hero) James Madison spoke before the House of Representatives and asked its members to consider 16 amendments to the recently ratified U.S. Constitution.  Most of those 16 amendments outlined specific rights the people possessed.

Madison’s speech was arguably the greatest example in our history of a politician not only making but actually keeping a campaign promise, because Madison had long opposed attaching a bill of rights to the Constitution.   Yet in campaigning for a House seat in the government created by that Constitution, Madison realized that most voters in the Virginia district he wished to represent supported a bill of rights, as did his opponent in that campaign, James Monroe.

Madison also knew that most of the states that had ratified the Constitution wanted a second constitutional convention to fix the many defects that their citizens thought remained in the original Constitution, chief among them the lack of a bill of rights.  The last thing Madison wanted was a second constitutional convention — the first had been painful enough — and so, hoping to avoid that, during his campaign for the House seat he promised that, if elected, he would introduce amendments in Congress that would protect natural rights.

Even then, his speech that June was half-hearted because Madison believed a bill of rights was unnecessary. After all, the Constitution created a government of limited, delineated powers, meaning the federal government only possessed those powers that were clearly given to it by the Constitution.  In no instance, Madison knew, was this federal government given any power to violate people’s natural rights.  To Madison, the real danger to people’s rights came from state and local governments, in which powerful majorities historically had ridden roughshod over minorities.

But he swallowed his misgivings, introduced the 16 amendments, and watched as Congress reduced them to 12, which were then sent to the states to be ratified.  This week (Dec. 15) in 1791, the states ratified 10 of the 12, which became our Bill of Rights.

Interestingly, the first two of the 12 amendments sent to the states for ratification dealt with apportioning House seats among the states and financially compensating members of Congress.  Those two were also the two that the states didn’t ratify, meaning that Madison’s third amendment—which forbade Congress from denying citizens freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly and freedom to petition—became our First Amendment.

Today, we like to think of the First Amendment as first among equals—our bedrock protection—yet if the states had acted differently, today we might hear Americans complaining, “You can’t silence me.  That violates my Third Amendment rights!”

Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?