This post was written by Catherine Falzone, Cataloger, American Historical Manuscript Collection.
Even though we can’t always agree on an interpretation of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, we don’t hear many arguments these days that the Bill of Rights should not exist. Whatever our feelings about individual amendments, we tend to see them as our basic rights as Americans to individual liberty and justice. But the delineation of these rights in the Constitution was not a forgone conclusion. A bill of rights was not present in the version of the Constitution that was ratified on June 21, 1788.
As shown in the letter below from John Adams to his friend Cotton Tufts, dated London, February 12, 1788, Adams wished to see a “Declaration of Rights,” but was “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?” That is what ended up happening: the states did not ratify a bill of rights, in the form of ten amendments, until December 15, 1791, three and a half years after the Constitution went into effect.
Researchers can find this letter in the John Adams Collection (within the American Historical Manuscript Collection), which also contains letters from Adams to the Marquis de Lafayette, Elbridge Gerry, his son Thomas Boylston Adams, and others.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.