The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

John Adams and the Bill of Rights

On this day in 1789, President George Washington wrote a short letter to each state’s governor, enclosing a copy of twelve proposed amendments to the new United States Constitution for consideration, which Congress had passed on September 25 with the signatures of the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, Vice President John Adams. Of the twelve, ten received the necessary ratification and collectively became known as the Bill of Rights.

These amendments corresponded with many of the changes for which John Adams had expressed a desire when he first read the proposed Constitution. “A Declaration of Rights I wish to see with all my Heart,” he confided in early 1788, “though I am sensible of the Difficulty of framing one, in which all the States can agree.— a more compleat Seperation of the Executive from the Legislative too, would be more Safe for all. The Press, Conscience & Juries I wish better Secured.— But is it not better to accept this Plan and amend it hereafter?”

Adams certainly was “sensible of the Difficulty” of writing a constitution. A decade earlier, in the fall of 1779, he toiled over his draft of the Massachusetts constitution, drawing upon the other states’ constitutions as well as his own extensive study and consideration of law and government. Not only did he include protections for the press, religious belief, and juries, but reflecting the importance the Declaration of Rights held for Adams, he had placed it ahead of the frame of government itself.

While the proposed amendments did not repair all the defects that Adams perceived in the federal Constitution (he particularly opposed the limited presidential veto and the need for Senate approval of nominations), he understood that the Constitutional Convention’s achievements could not be diminished, even if the final product remained flawed. “A result of accommodation cannot be supposed to reach the ideas of perfection of any one,” Adams admitted in the conclusion of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, “but the conception of such an idea, and the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.” The new Bill of Rights moved the nation another step toward a “more perfect union.”

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 2 October, 2013, 1:00 AM