first ten amendments


March 4th 1789: First United States Congress

On this day in 1789, the first Congress of the United States met at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street, New York City. The Congress comprises two houses - the Senate, which at this point had 21 senators, and the House of Representatives, of which there were originally 58 members. The first Congress lasted until March 3rd 1791, spanning the first two years of George Washington’s presidency. The Speaker of the House was Frederick Muhlenberg, and the President of the Senate was, per the Constitution, Vice President John Adams. In the early stages of the American republic, there were no coherent and defined political parties, and Congress was simply divided between those who supported the Washington administration and those who did not, with the supporters holding a majority in each house. The first Congresss’ main accomplishments include passing the first ten amendments to the Constitution - known as the Bill of Rights - establishing the United States Census, creating Washington D.C. as the national capital, establishing the Departments of State, War and Treasury, and creating the Supreme Court through the 1789 Judiciary Act. The first meeting of Congress officially created the government set out in the Constitution, which had been ratified in 1788, and thus marks the day the Constitution was put into effect.

“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives”
- Article I, Section I, Clause I of the United States Constitution


Happy Bill of Rights Day! On December 15, 1791, the first ten amendments–now known as the Bill of Rights–were added to the Constitution.

During the 1787–1788 Constitutional ratification process, opponents criticized the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. They argued that the Constitution should include one, because without it a strong central government would trample individuals’ liberties and freedoms. In the end, enough states supported the Constitution without amendments that it was ratified without changes.

However, the effort to amend the Constitution carried over into the first Federal elections. Anti-Federalists—those who opposed the Constitution—pushed to elect pro-amendment members to the First Federal Congress.

As the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison had a vested interest in protecting the Constitution from drastic alterations. When the First Congress convened in 1789, James Madison, who originally opposed altering the Constitution, became the leading proponent of a bill of rights, thus allowing him to guide the drafting of new amendments.

That June, Madison proposed a series of amendments to the newly ratified Constitution. Most of Madison’s amendments were rights-related, and he chose to insert them directly into the Constitution’s existing text.

In the summer of 1789 the House of Representatives debated Madison’s proposals and made several changes.

During the debate, Roger Sherman of Connecticut made one notable suggestion: adding the amendments to the end of the Constitution, rather than working them into the existing text. The House agreed and made the change, resulting in the enumerated list of amendments we are familiar with today.

On August 24 the House passed 17 articles of amendment, and then the Senate took up the matter, making several alterations and consolidations of their own.

Ultimately, Congress forwarded to the states 12 articles of amendment. Ten of them—articles 3 through 12—were subsequently ratified and became the Bill of Rights in 1791.

The Bill of Rights is on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. You can read a full transcript of the all the amendments here:

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Governor Christie -- a former U.S. Attorney -- doesn’t remember that the first ten amendments to the Constitution were all passed together as the Bill of Rights, not in chronological order.