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Genealogy and the Bill of Rights

It is one of the defining legal documents, not just of our time, but of all time.

It was ratified 222 years ago yesterday.

And we are all — all — the better off for it.

Bill.of.RightsIt is the Bill of Rights.

The first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution started out as a set of 17 in the House of Representatives, reduced to 12 in the Senate.1

Only 10 of those 12 initially were adopted, and–

They defined citizens’ rights in relation to the newly established government under the Constitution.

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a “bill of rights” that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States therefore proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. Articles 3 to 12, ratified December 15, 1791, by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Article 2 concerning “varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives” was finally ratified on May 7, 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. The first amendment, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative, was never ratified.2

Great history, for sure.

But what has this to do with us, as genealogists?

It’s oh so simple. It has to do with who we are — the storytellers — and with what we do: tell the stories. All the stories.

Here, the story of those who ensured that we would have the Bill of Rights.

Yes, it’s the story of George Mason, drafter of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, whose refusal to sign the proposed U.S. Constitution underscored the demand for a national Bill of Rights.3

And it’s the story of James Madison. Clearly, without his individual leadership securing Congressional authority for the first amendments, those opposed to the Constitution itself might well have carried the day.4

But it’s also the story of, just as one example, the men of the 1789 New Jersey legislature. They were the first to give their approval to the proposed amendments, on 20 November 1789.5

So it’s the story of those named to the initial Committee to consider those amendments on 4 November 1789: “Messrs. Nicoll, Marsh, Bonny, Stillwell, Witherspoon, Davenport, Hall, Elijah Townsend, Corshon, Kitchel, Dr. Elmer and Hankinson.”6

It’s the story of those named by the Council — “Messrs. Dayton, Van-Cleve, Woodhull and Martin.”7

It’s the story of the adjournment of the House on Thursday, 5 November 1789, so that the members could “attend a Conferrence with the Council on the amendments proposed to the Constitution of the United States.”8

It’s the story of the report, signed by Jonathan Dayton and Isaac Nicoll for the two houses of the Legislature, reporting that the Committee “having had a conferrence upon, and duly considered and discussed the Subject committed to them, have unanimously agreed to report and recommend it to their respective Houses”9 — but not in full.

No, the Committee approved only 11 of the proposed 12 amendments.10 One, setting the apportionment of House members, never passed, although New Jersey supported it. A second proposed amendment, limiting Congressional pay raises, didn’t get New Jersey’s approval then. As a matter of fact, it didn’t pass in New Jersey until 7 May 1992 — and didn’t become law until then.11

But that’s a story for another day. Today, it’s the story of Dr. Ebenezer Elmer’s report on 10 November 1789 that a bill had been drafted to approve those amendments, and it was read and ordered for a second reading thereafter.12

And the story of that second reading, and the debate, on the 18th of November.13

And the story of the unanimous passage of the bill on the morning of the 19th — and the appointment of “Mr. Holmes (to) carry the said Bill to Council for concurrence.”14

And of the receipt just before the lunch break on the 20th of a report by Mr. Randolph of the Council:

Mr. Speaker–I am directed to wait on the House of Assembly, and acquaint them, that the Bill intitled, “An Act to ratify on the part of this State, certain Amendments to the Constitution of the United States,” is passed by Council without amendment.15

And just as much as it’s the story of each and every member of that New Jersey legislature who began the journey of the Bill of Rights into law, it’s also the story of each and every member of the Virginia legislature who voted 222 years ago yesterday and whose votes carried the day for those first 10 amendments.16

And today we tell that story.

Their story.

Because that’s who we are.

And what we do.


  1. A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the U.S. Constitution,” National Archives, ( : accessed 15 Dec 2013).
  2. Bill of Rights (1791), ( : accessed 15 Dec 2013).
  3. J. Gordon Hylton, “Virginia and the Ratification of the Bill of Rights, 1789-1791,” 25 U. Rich. L. Rev. 433 (1991).
  4. A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the U.S. Constitution,” National Archives, ( : accessed 15 Dec 2013).
  5. Votes and Proceedings of the Fourteenth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey (New Brunswick, N.J. : p.p., 1789); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 15 Dec 2013).
  6. Ibid., proceedings of 4 Nov 1789, 22.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., proceedings of 5 Nov 1789, 26.
  9. Ibid., proceedings of 6 Nov 1789, 26-27.
  10. Ibid., 27.
  11. Wikipedia (, “Twenty-seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution,” rev. 15 Nov 2013.
  12. Votes and Proceedings of the Fourteenth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey, proceedings of 10 Nov 1789, 35.
  13. Ibid., proceedings of 18 Nov 1789, 80.
  14. Ibid., proceedings of 19 Nov 1789.
  15. Ibid., proceedings of 20 Nov 1789, 86.
  16. The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, December 15, 1791,” Shaping the Constitution, Virginia Memory ( : accessed 16 Dec 2013.
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