The Virginia State Capitol was the site of one of the most pivotal votes ever cast in our nation's history. On Dec. 15, 1791, the state legislature at last agreed to add a group of amendments to the U.S. Constitution — among them freedom of speech and the press, and the right to a speedy trial — collectively known as the Bill of Rights.
Mark Greenough, historian at the Virginia State Capitol, explains, "Virginians opened the discussion and closed the deal on a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution."
George Mason's 1776 "Virginia Declaration of Rights" influenced other states and provided a model for amendments proposed to the U.S. Constitution between 1787 and 1789. "Mason deserves more credit for this," Greenough says, though the statesman did live long enough to see the national Bill of Rights become law.
Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and other Virginians criticized the 1787 Constitution, which didn't enshrine liberty. Some hoped to force a second Constitutional Convention. Thomas Jefferson, in France at the time, regularly corresponded with James Madison about this issue.
"A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular," Jefferson wrote, "and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences."
A tempestuous summer of 1788 ratification conference in Richmond featured a glittering array of Virginia's aging Revolutionary generation. John Marshall, future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, argued for getting the Constitution passed to see how it would work. During a speech by Henry against ratification without a bill of rights, as he proclaimed that the Constitution might allow Congress to free the slaves hastily, lightning reportedly struck twice near the meeting hall. Delegates scurried for the exit.
The eminent George Wythe chaired the committee that prepared a list of recommended amendments for Congress and other states to consider.
President George Washington acknowledged the worthwhile qualities of the proposed amendments, but Congress needed to work out the details. The first president's amenability provided Madison with a needed boost. He resolved to amend the Constitution with "a declaration of the rights of the people," for "the tranquility of the public mind, and the stability of government."
The House originally proposed 75 amendments, whittled the list to 17, and then the Senate chopped that to 12. While Congress wrestled with the amendments, George Mason said that he could "cheerfully place my Hand & Heart to the new government." Henry, though, exploded when he read them. He told his sons, "This Constitution cannot last a century. We can only get rid of it by violent and bloody struggle."
The Virginia legislature considered the amendments in batches, the House deliberating and then tossing them to the Senate. Of the original dozen, Greenough says, "only 10 made the final cut. Virginia voted for all 12, but the minimum states needed for ratification, 11, voted for the 10 amendments."
(One of the two amendments that failed to pass in 1791 was that no sitting Congress can vote itself a pay raise until an intervening election. It became law as the 27th Amendment — in 1992.)
The legislators made their way piecemeal through the amendments. "The circle is completed on Dec. 15," Greenough says. "The Senate finishes, responding affirmatively to all the votes of the House."
The Constitution requires ratification of amendments by a three-fourths' majority of the states, and Virginia's vote made it official. Final approval of the Bill of Rights was offered as a "joint resolution" and made with a vocal "Aye" or "No." The motion carried. The Bill of Rights didn't then embrace American Indians, African Americans, or women. Much was left for the future, and there would come trials and tribulations. But it was an auspicious start.