What Important Action Did the First Congress Take in 1789?

Representative James Madison was the first to propose amendments to the Constitution.
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Want to attend the church of your choice? Protest a law? Have a trial by jury? You have these individual rights, but the original United States Constitution guaranteed none of them. In 1789, the first Congress approved 12 amendments to the Constitution. By 1791, states had approved 10, and these became known as the Bill of Rights. The Constitution was a thoughtfully crafted document, but two years after its acceptance, Congress started making changes.

1 The Fight for Rights

The Bill of Rights was created as a compromise. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, some representatives insisted that individual rights should be identified in the final document. Anti-Federalists, wary of being oppressed, supported states’ rights and insisted that the central government should guarantee certain personal freedoms. Members of the Federalist Party favored a strong government. They didn’t think individual rights needed to be spelled out because they were guaranteed by both state and common law. Federalists agreed that individual rights could be added after the Constitution was passed, and a deal was struck.

2 Working Through the System

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 and Virginia's Declaration of Rights were primary resources used to construct the amendments. The House of Representatives initially passed 17 amendments, and the Senate narrowed them down to 12. States didn’t ratify two amendments. One concerned the size of the population served by members of the House of Representative, and this amendment died. The other postponed any pay increases Congress granted itself until the start of the next Congressional session. Only six states passed this amendment initially. It never had a time limit, and it was eventually ratified in 1992, becoming the 27th Amendment.

3 The Top Five

The Bill of Rights opens with several specific freedoms for opposing or unconventional views: religious choice, free speech, a free press, the right to peaceful assembly and the opportunity to petition the government. The second amendment guarantees the right to keep and use firearms. Number three prevents the government from taking over private homes as soldiers’ quarters during times of peace. The fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure of people and property, while the fifth guarantees grand jury hearings and stops individuals from being punished twice for the same crime. It also prevents people from being forced to give evidence against themselves. In addition, if the government takes property from an individual for the public good, the owner must be fairly compensated.

4 Last but Not Least

Several of the final five amendments concern rights within the criminal justice system. Number six explains that defendants have the right to a fair, speedy and public jury trial. They must be informed of the charges against them. Trial witnesses must testify in person, under oath. Criminal defendants also have the right to have lawyers represent them. The seventh amendment guarantees jury trials for civil cases. The next outlaws excessive bail and fines and prevents cruel and unusual punishment. The ninth amendment is a fail-safe: Even if a right is not specifically identified, like the right to privacy, individuals still have those freedoms. Finally, any powers not identified as federal in the Constitution belong to the people or to the states.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.