Drafted in August 1789 by James Madison (1751–1836), later fourth President of the United States (1809–17), the Bill of Rights originated as a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution, to establish ‘those essential rights of mankind without which liberty cannot exist’. These amendments were considered necessary to secure the support of those states which were reluctant to ratify the Constitution. This is the copy sent to Delaware, ratified in January 1790. Unlike the other states, which ratified the Bill of Rights in a separate document, Delaware signed and sealed its copy, before returning the original to the federal government.
The ten amendments ratified by the states in 1791 brought definition to the seven original articles of the Constitution (drafted in September 1787 and ratified in 1789–90), addressing anxieties about the possible tyranny of federal government. In the words of the preamble to the document, the intention was ‘to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers’. The Bill of Rights expanded on the more general statements of the Constitution to identify fundamental personal liberties such as freedom of religion, speech and assembly (First Amendment). Drawing explicitly on Edward Coke’s reading of Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights established a range of legal freedoms from unreasonable search and arrest (Fourth Amendment), and it provided defendants with the right to a prompt and proper trial by an impartial jury under due process of law (Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments).
The Bill of Rights was a classic defence of the freedom of the individual. The Tenth Amendment, stating that, ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people’, reinforced the principle that the ‘people’ retained their natural freedoms despite the existence of a national government.