Today, December 15, 1791: Bill of Rights Ratified

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith,…” were the words written in the first political charter (The Mayflower Compact) in the American colonies. William Bradford, the chief architect of the Mayflower Compact wrote a history of the Plymouth Colony and in that history he expressed the reason that they undertook such a dangerous and risky venture of sailing to the New World. He wrote, “They [colonists] cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations . . . for the propagations and advance of the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.

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Bradford and his fellow Separatists established the Plymouth colony in 1620 to escape the strict religious persecution taking place in England and other European countries.  From 1620 up to the 1770’s, thousands of colonists fled their countries for the promise of religious freedom that was to be found in the American Colonies.

Puritan minister Rev. Thomas Hooker left England in 1633 due to his Christian views. Rev. Hooker settled in Connecticut and soon became aware of the need for a Christian rule to govern the colonists. In 1638, he was instrumental in writing the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut which were adopted in 1639. These Fundamental Orders contained many biblical rights and ideas. This is the first written constitution in history.

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In 1641, Rev. Nathaniel Ward wrote the Body of Liberties for the people of the Massachusetts colony. The Body of Liberty was the first Bill of Rights ever written. Its purpose was stated as, “Wee doe therefore this day religiously and unanimously decree and confirme these following Rites, liberties and priveledges concerneing our Churches, and Civill State to be respectively impartiallie and inviolably enjoyed and observed throughout our Jurisdiction for ever.” Article 95 was for, “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches.”

As the American colonies developed, charters were written to govern them and most of these charters shared the same sentiments found in the Mayflower Compact – to advance and propagate the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus Christ. A number of these charters actually had provisions for the support of the Christian church. In Massachusetts, taxes were collected for the express purpose of supporting local churches and ministers. The practice continued into statehood and eventually ended in 1833.

Between 1740 and 1760, the colonies experienced a revival known as the Great Awakening. Led by Rev. George Whitefield and Rev. Jonathan Edwards, tens of thousands of colonists were converted to Christianity and many churches more than doubled in size. Among those that were influenced by the Great Awakening were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and James Madison along with many of the other Founders responsible for America’s freedom.  Christian historians attribute the Great Awakening as the impetus that launched the American Revolution as it helped to form their biblical and Christian worldviews which in turn molded their views on virtue, statesmanship and liberty.

Among those greatly influenced by the Great Awakening was Samuel Adams, often called the “Father of the Revolution”. Samuel Adams was known to be a very ardent Christian and a true prayer warrior. Inspired by his biblical beliefs, Adams realized that the growing conflict with Great Britain was more than just political or economic; it was also a spiritual battle. The British were violating the individual and Christian rights of the colonists. Adams was instrumental in circulating letters throughout the colonies educating the colonists on the reasons to support the idea of revolution against the British based upon biblical principles. Without these circulating letters explaining the biblical reasons to support revolution, many colonists would have resisted the idea of revolution and the colonies would have remained under British control for many more years to come.

Under the influence of Adam’s circular letters and the fervent preaching of the clergy, the colonists became more unified than ever before. On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia.  Its first official act was to pass a resolution to have the Congress meet the next day at Carpenter’s Hall where Rev. Jacob Duché would open the session with prayer. Before dispersing on October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances which was a response to the British Intolerable Acts, and they agreed to call for a Second Continental Congress to reconvene on May 10, 1775.

Before the Second Continental Congress could convene, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington, MA on April 19, 1775. With the American colonies at war with Great Britain, the main task of the Second Continental Congress was to manage the war that had broken out with the British.

It was the clergy who preached for religious and political freedom from British tyranny. In December of 1775, a Virginia minister by the name of Peter Muhlenberg concluded his sermon with the following words, “There is a time for all things—a time to preach and time to pray.” He walked to the rear of his church, taking off his black clerical robe to reveal the dress uniform of a colonel in the Virginia Militia.  Then in a booming voice continued, “There is a time to fight, and that time has come.”  With drums beating, nearly every one of the 300 men in the congregation followed Rev. Muhlenberg to war.  The Rev. Peter Muhlenberg is often most remembered for serving as a Brigadier General under George Washington and playing a very crucial role in the Revolutionary war.

On June 11, 1776, the Convention appointed a committee of five men to work on a draft of a document for independence. That committee consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. As the Committee of Five worked on the draft, the rest of the Convention continued to argue over whether or not the colonies should declare their independence or continue to use diplomatic means to reach an agreeable peace with Great Britain.

By early July, the declaration was almost complete, yet the debate about whether to sign such an important document or not still persisted. One of the delegates, the Rev. John Witherspoon, addressed the Convention with the following words:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, and we can perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which insures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this morning by every pen in this House. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name of freeman! For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged on the issue of this contest; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country!

The Rev. John Witherspoon was not only a well-known minister of the Gospel, he was also a very popular educator and college president.

Shortly after hearing the words of Rev. Witherspoon, the delegates signed the document that was titled, The United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Witherspoon’s educational legacy included 9 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1 U.S. President (James Madison), 1 U.S. Vice-President, 28 U.S. Senators, 49 U.S. Congressmen, 3 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 34 other judges, 10 federal Cabinet officers, 12 state governors and numerous state congressmen.

Every one of these signers of the Declaration of Independence knew that their signatures on this document meant that they were to be declared as sworn enemies of the British crown and that they stood to lose all of their wealth, possessions and lives. They were willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of political and religious freedom.

News of the Declaration of Independence was spread throughout the colonies mostly through the churches. In Massachusetts, it was:

Ordered, that the Declaration of Independence be printed; and a Copy sent to the Ministers of each Parish, of every Denomination, within this State; and that they severally be required to read the same to their respective Congregations, as soon as divine Service is ended in the Afternoon, on the first Lord’s Day after they shall have received it:…And after such Publication thereof, to deliver the said Declaration to the Clerks of their several Towns or Districts; who are hereby required to record the same in their respective Town or District Books, there to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.”

During that time, the Second Continental Congress knew that they needed to create some form of rule to govern the 13 colonies. In 1777, they established the Articles of Confederation which were ratified in 1781 and used to govern the new nation to until 1787. By the time the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the Second Continental Congress began to realize that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to rule the newly won nation. Among the problems with the ruling document was that Congress had no power to raise money or to enforce any of its decisions, it did not provide for any type of executive leadership and did not sufficiently provide for solutions of the many interstate conflicts that were arising.

James Madison, a member of the Virginia Lower House and former student Rev. John Witherspoon, urged that the newly formed states meet to discuss ways to fix and repair the Articles of Confederation. In January 1786, the Virginia Legislature sent invitations to the other 12 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland to hammer out these issues. The Annapolis Convention was poorly attended and called for a Grand Convention to meet in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787.

On May 14, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met at Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and elected General George Washington as the Convention President. It soon became clear that it would take too much work to try to amend the Articles of Confederation and that it would be necessary to create a new governing document.

However, over the course of the next few weeks, little progress was made towards that singular goal. The smaller states didn’t want the large states to have more power than they did and the northern and southern states had their differences of opinions on a number of issues including slavery. There was also a great deal of disagreement on what type of government they should adopt. Various “Plans” were put forth including the Virginia Plan (also known and the Large State Plan), the New Jersey Plan (also known as the Small State Plan), the Charles Pinckney Plan, the Hamilton Plan and the Connecticut Compromise.

Tempers often flared in the heat of early summer. Towards the end of June, the Constitutional Convention was on the verge of disbanding without accomplishing anything towards forming a new governing document. At this time, the delegate considered to be the most deist of all of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, asked the Convention President, George Washington for the floor to address his fellow delegates. Upon being granted permission, Franklin gave the following speech:

Mr. President:

The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.

I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.

When the venerable Dr. Franklin finished his address, the room was silent for several moments. Then the resolution for prayer was unanimously approved and the entire atmosphere of the Convention was changed. Every session from then on was opened with prayer.

The delegates started to listen to each other’s concerns and over the next 2 ½ months, they were finally able to agree on a form of government that addressed most of their concerns.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America was adopted and sent to the states for ratification.

On December 7, 1787, Delaware was the first colony/state to ratify the Constitution with a 30-0 vote. Delaware had been the second colony to declare independence from Great Britain.

On December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania becomes second state to ratify the Constitution with a 46-23 vote.

On December 18, 1787, New Jersey becomes third state to ratify the Constitution with a 38-0 vote.

On January 2, 1788, Georgia is fourth state to ratify the Constitution with a 26-0 vote.

On January 9, 1788, Connecticut is fifth state to ratify the Constitution with 128-40 vote.

On February 6, 1788, Massachusetts, the state where the Revolutionary War began, became the sixth state to ratify the Constitution with a 128-40 vote.

On March 24, 1788, Rhode Island, the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain, voted against ratification with a 237-2708 vote.

On April 28, 1788, Maryland is the seventh state to ratify the Constitution with a 63-11 vote.

On May 23, 1788, South Carolina becomes eighth state to ratify the Constitution with a 149-73 vote.

On June 21 1788, New Hampshire joins the nation by ratifying the Constitution with a 57-47 vote. Enough states had ratified the Constitution to make it legal and the new law of the land.

The Constitution is a great document, but it has its limitations and some of the Founding Fathers realized and were concerned about those limitations. The Constitution spelled the rules for the federal government but it did not spell out any individual or state’s right. An additional concern to some of the Framers was that what rights the Constitution did define only applied to some. The phrase ‘consent of the governed’ at the time referred to white males only.

Some of the states refused to ratify the Constitution because of the same issues listed above. The arguments for and against the Constitution stemmed around the two prevalent political groups of the time. The Federalists were those who believed that the new nation should be run by a centralized government who would hold all the power and rights. Federalists were fully supportive of the Constitution as it stood. The Anti-Federalists believed that the federal government should have a minor role and that most of the power and rights belonged to the people and the states. As it stood, they were against the Constitution without any revision.

Fear of a tyrannical central government, like the one they had just rebelled against in England,swayed the popular opinion and the need for amendments to the Constitution became a requirement.

James Madison was tasked with writing a series of amendments to the Constitution which would specify individual and states’ rights. Relying on the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776 – written by George Mason, Madison originally wrote up to 15 amendments. That list was soon reduced to 12 amendments and referred to as the Bill of Rights.

After approval by Congress, the 12 amendments were sent to the state for ratification.

On this day, December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 10th state to ratify the Bill of Rights. At the time, there were 14 states and ratification required approval of 10 states.

However, not all 12 of Madison’s amendments were ratified. The states only ratified 10 of the 12 amendments. The two amendments not ratified dealt with representation based on population and varying the payment of members of Congress taking effect until an election intervened. The first of these two amendments was never ratified, but the second one was finally ratified in 1992.


Sources for the above includes: Today, June 21, 1788: U.S. Constitution Ratified; Bill of Rights Is Finally Ratified; Bill of Rights; The Bill of Rights: A Brief History; Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791); The Bill of Rights: Its History and Significance; The Bill of Rights; Constitution of the United States of America; The Bill of Rights:

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