It’s the Bill of Rights’ birthday — express yourself!

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On September 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the Bill of Rights–and sent them to the states for ratification.

Nothing new is perfect. Writers know that, which is one reason we have editors.

On the other hand, editing by committee is a risky business. The bigger the committee, the riskier it is. Perhaps that’s one reason today’s U.S. Congress gives us laws that are hundreds or thousands of pages long and no one can ever hope to read.

A few dozen representatives to the Constitutional Convention of 1789 drafted the short document that defined how the United States would be governed. They sent the result to 13 more committees–the state ratification conventions.

They got back hundreds of helpful editorial suggestions. The biggest criticism, and North Carolina’s deal-breaker with the original Constitution, was that it did not list the rights of the citizens. This was a major omission, considering that they’d just fought a war to free themselves from tyranny.

James Madison of Virginia sought to weave these amendments into the original document, but Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed breaking the amendments out and listing them at the end of the document. That’s the model we know today.

The First Amendment deals with freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. We like to think that it’s the first because it enumerates our most important rights.

But that’s not why.

What happened?

This photo of the Senate revisions shows how the third amendment became the First Amendment. The first two elaborated on details already included in the main Constitution. Article the First defines the population each member of Congress would represent. Article the Second says that Congress can’t vote itself raises unless they apply after the next Congress convenes.

Senate Revisions to House Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, September 2-9, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 3535588)

The amendment on representation fell one state short of ratification but was never adopted. The one on pay raises was ratified by six of the original states. Others continued to ratify it as they joined the union. Eventually a university student discovered this bit of unfinished business in the 1980s. It’s now the 27th Amendment, enacted in 1992.

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