US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Articles of Confederation

As every American should know (and many students of world history do know), the current US Constitution, and its first 10 Amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified together. It has always been my impression that the Bill of Rights was ratified simultaneously but separately - i.e. that while many states did indeed ratify them both in the same act, it would have been possible to ratify the Constitution but not the Bill of Rights.

I have recently begun to question this bit of childhood education. Didn’t some states ratify them separately or at least extensively debate giving the Bill of Right the bye? I’d be especially grateful for cites/links to source documents.

I’m also interested in recommendations of authorative, source-linked websites, essays, 18th C. speeches, etc. on the political and social forces in the Articles of Confederation era - specifically, the down-and-dirty of how it was decided to abandon the Articles of Confederation, and of the political negotiations in writing the current Constitution. By ‘down and dirty’, I mean the actual, often messy, process, not the neat stylized versions that are easily found everywhere.

I know this sounds like a homework question, but I already have my doctorates (alas, in subjects far removed from history). I’ve devoted a few lunch hours to trying to research it (I call this my ‘internet diet’), but I must not be hitting the right search terms to get the kind of answers I want – and some seemingly authoritative sites I’ve found have contradicted each other

Thanks in advance.

In brief, from the New York Times Almanac:

The Bill of Rights was not adopted until 1791. It was not even introduced into Congress until after the Constitution had been adopted.

The U.S. Constitution Online

And for those who are curious, the two which didn’t pass are:

“Article the second” eventually was ratified by a suffiency of states in 1992 (Michigan put the amendment over the top) and it became the 27th Amendment. A subsequent court ruling all but negated the amendment, because it was found not to affect the automatic pay raises Congress had previously voted itself prior to ratification.

Not exactly what you are looking for, KP, but I’d recommend “The Federalist Papers,” a set of essays written by Hamilton and Madison (and a couple by John Jay) advocating ratification of the Constitution and explaining the framers’ view of the document’s structure and the benefits it offered compared to the Articles, which were then in force.


Not only were the Constitution and the ten amendments which make up the Bill of Rights ratified separately and not simultaneously, they were ratified by different bodies. Each state called and elected a special ad hoc convention to ratify or reject the Constitution as a whole. After the Constitution was ratified and Congress proposed the Bill of Rights amendments, these were ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the states as specified in Article V.

KP, you could also check out The Framing of the Constitution which details the inner workings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t call it “down’n’dirty”, but it’s very informative.

Thanks all.

I can see that much of the confusion was my own. As the years go on, I have to unlearn so much my teachers insisted was true. It’s not that they were lying as much as rambling (and a bit stubborn sometimes) A lot of the edifice I built on the ramshackle foundation of those ‘facts’ (many of which the teachers probably didn’t give a second thought, since they weren’t going to be on the test) should be condemned, if a Building Inspector every gets hold of my head.

I did read the Federalist Papers, back in my murky youth (I thought it was brilliant), but my understanding and my specific interests were different then - and I was still in the grasp of those pesky teachers.

I will continue to monitor the thread. It has been most instructive.

If we burned every social studies book which erroneously reports that the U.S. Supreme Court “only decides whether a law is constitutional or not,” we could heat Manhattan for a year. That’s actually not the only thing the Supreme Court does – indeed, before the Civil War, it had done so a total of two times.


Cliffy is very right about the duties of the Supreme Court. SCOTUS also presides over “original” cases, usually when two states agree to waive sovereign immunity and duke it out in court.

A couple of weeks ago SCOTUS heard arguments in No. 129 Original, Virginia v. Maryland, a riparian rights issue over the unusual border configuration of the Potomac River (the Maryland border begins at the waterline on the Virginia side, rather than down the centerline of the river).

Is it so unusual? I was under the impression that the Ohio-Kentucky border was similarly defined, with Kentucky owning the river all the way to the waterline on the Ohio side.

Strictly speaking (and what is this forum for if not speaking strictly?), the Court decided the constitutionality of a federal law in the negative only twice before the Civil War. There were other cases involving state law, and cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland, involving federal law, where the Court considered the issue and decided in the affirmative.

But certainly, constitutionality issues were not a big part of the Court’s workload in the Nineteenth Century, and they are by no means the whole of it even today.

I stand corrected.

And shamed. :o


If you are willing to spring for a couple books I have found the most “down and dirty” tale of the politics of the period is The Ordeal of the Constitution: The Antifederalists and the Ratification Struggle of 1787-1788. The author gives copious examples of lies, slander, threats of secession, blocking and tampering of mail, and other dirty tricks, including even economic intimidation and physical violence, used by the “Federalists”* to illegally disolve the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The legal standing of the federal convention to produce the Constitution is rarely discussed ( even by prominent individuals ) but comparing the amendment clause of the first document to the ratification clause of the 2nd shows that the Constitution was unconstitutional.

Mr Rutland’s book only covers the ratification of the Constitution. For a bigger picture I recommend E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790. Forrest McDonald is a more conservative historian ( he was previously known to me only as one of the detractors of Charles Beard ) but he appears willing to relay information even if it may ruffle feathers. He tells, for instance, how Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton, among others, led a scheme attempting to use the Continental Army in a nationalist coup. His description of the so Connecticut Compromise of the federal convention is unique and eye opening. That story alone was worth the price of the book to me. It totally undercuts the general understanding of the so called “Great Compromise”.

It isn’t easy to find critical discussion of the founding generation on the 'net. There are a couple chapters of Bensen’s Our Dishonest Constitution written back when Beard had recently published. Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and other Illusions by Jerry Fresia is also available. He certainly can’t be accused of a tendency to avoid slinging mud and I didn’t come across any inaccuracies. Given the myth that has grown up over the Founding that’s not usually the case. Here’s another useful article: Strange Battle for Bill of Rights. For a wealth of orginal documents go to and click on “Founding Documents”. For an “Anti-federalist” view of the propriety of their opponents actions you should read the dissent of Pennsylvania’s minority which is under #15-Documentary History of the Bill of Rights.

    • The term “Federalist” was itself a campaign ploy. The Constitution provided for a vigourous new national government. It was those who opposed it, the “Antis” that were more deserving of the title “federalists”. They were the states rights party. That was the side arguing for a true federation of sovereign states.