Notes on Quotes: Almost Losing Our Bill of Rights

By Gordon Mercer and Marcia Gaines Mercer

“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.” Thomas Jefferson, U. S. President, 1801- 1809

   As the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention recessed in 1787, the delegates were reasonably confident that their work on a strong national constitutional form of government with separation of powers and checks and balances would be easily ratified.  After nearly four months of debate and compromise, the proposed U. S. Constitution had to be approved by conventions in 9 of the 13 states. As delegates began to arrive home, however, they were hit with a “firestorm”.  They had not put in a Bill of Rights with freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, trial rights, the right to bear arms and the many rights we value today.

   The debate over leaving out a Bill of Rights made today’s political debates look lightweight. “Wasn’t this tyranny all over again,” many asked? Before the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention ended, George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, began arguing for a Bill of Rights. Elbridge Gerry presented the motion but Federalists like James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton and most other delegates thought the separation of powers and other checks on power protected the people’s rights sufficiently. They argued that if they put in more rights, it would suggest citizens did not already have these rights and many feared freedom of expression and a free press.  

   George Mason of Virginia had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights and felt the proposed U. S. Constitution left out the very freedoms we had fought the Revolutionary War to gain. As the delegates at the convention decided against a Bill of Rights, thirteen unhappy delegates left the convention early.  George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts remained but refused to sign.

   The Anti-Federalists urged their state conventions not to ratify the proposed Constitution because a strong central government without a Bill of Rights would permit tyranny.  Thomas Jefferson, who was minister to France and out of the country, stated that he did not oppose the proposed U. S. Constitution, but affirmed that it needed a Bill of Rights. Anti-Federalists Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee from Virginia along with George Clinton of New York and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts were so effective in arguing that liberties and freedom would be lost without a Bill of Rights that ratification in Virginia, New York and Massachusetts were threatened. North Carolina flatly refused to ratify until a Bill of Rights was passed.

   James Madison and other key Federalists at last agreed that the first priority of the new U. S. Congress would be to
propose and pass a Bill of Rights, which led to the passage of the new U. S. Constitution. James Madison led the successful effort to establish a Bill of Rights as the new U. S .Congress convened.

   The passage of a Bill of Rights was a turning point in our history. Without a strong, vocal minority our rights of freedom of religion, freedom of press and assembly, the right to bear arms, the right to petition the government, the right to a fair trial, as well as rights reserved to the people and states would have been lost. But most importantly, without compromise, passage would have been impossible.   

    The compromise on the Bill of Rights required thoughtful deliberation, time and attention to detail. Currently our political leaders do well on disagreement and debate but score poorly on compromise and reaching agreements.   

  Our Founding Fathers were willing to put in the time and effort needed for compromise. As we celebrate the legacy of the Founders, let us hope our current leaders will follow their example. We need leaders who are statesmen and stateswomen, serving the public interest above partisanship to move our national agenda forward. We need a working government.


Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published children’s author and columnist. They were married in Charleston in 1985 and have a place in nearby Garden City.