U.S. First Congress: Adoption of First Ten Amendments to U.S. Constitution, 1789-1791

As previously discussed, the First Congress of the United States of America began on March 4, 1789, and ended on March 4, 1791. [1]

Because there had been considerable public concern that the U.S. Constitution did not contain provisions protecting certain rights of the citizens, one of the most important tasks facing the First Congress was developing and adopting constitutional amendments on these subjects to propose to the states for ratification followed by the states’ ratification of ten of these proposals. [2]

Congress’ Adoption of Proposed Amendments

The House of Representatives opened this “Great and Delicate Subject” on June 8, 1789, when Representative James Madison introduced his nine proposed amendments. He said they were to meet objections by some citizens that the Constitution “did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power.” For illustration, Madison’s fourth article of amendment stated, in part, as follows:

  • “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience by in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.”
  • The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
  • “The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good, nor from applying to the legislature by petitions, or remonstrances for redress of their grievances.”

Madison’s proposals, however, were not immediately welcomed, by his own Federalists and by the Antifederalists. Many saw them as a waste of time or premature and preventing attention on more pressing business. Therefore, the proposals would have to wait.

On July 21, 1789, Madison unsuccessfully tried to move his amendments to the House floor. Instead they were assigned to a pro-Federalist select committee. Madison was aided in his amendment project by quoting from a not-quite-secret private letter from President Washington saying, “I see nothing exceptionable in the proposed amendments. Some of them, in my opinion, are importantly necessary; others, though in themselves not very essential, are necessary to quiet the fears of some respectable characters and well meaning Men. Upon the whole, not foreseeing any evil consequences that can result from their adoption, they have my wishes for a favorable reception in both houses.”

Thereafter the select committee reshuffled, tightened, and reconfigured Madison’s proposals into a more coherent list of nineteen, but still including what we now know as the Bill of Rights with narrower language for freedom of conscience. Madison argued that this language meant that Congress could not enforce the legal observance of any religion nor compel anyone to worship God in any way contrary to his conscience.

The select committee also revised Madison’s militia amendment—he had proposed an absolute individual right to bear arms—to make clear that the amendment applied specifically to organized, officially sanctioned militias, which were seen as the front line of defense against any foreign military invasion.

On August 24, 1789, the House after a cursory, mostly non-substantive debate approved 17 articles of amendment, including these important rights. Federalists thought they were self-evident, and Antifederalists were more interested in states rights. These articles then were sent to the Senate, which was not very enthusiastic about considering them.

On September 2, 1789, however, the Senate took up the amendments that had been approved by the House and altered and consolidated them into 12 articles that passed the Senate on September 9. Thereafter the House agreed to most of the Senate’s changes, and a conference committee reconciled the remaining differences.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress approved these revised 12 articles of proposed amendments. According to Bordewich, “the collective mood [of the Congress] was less one of triumph than of sheer exhaustion. No one in Congress regarded passage of the amendments as more than an exercise in political housekeeping” or “paper guarantees.”

States’ Ratification of First Ten Amendments to Constitution

These 12 articles of proposed amendments then were sent to the states for ratification. Although nine states so ratified 10 of the 12 articles within ten months, their actual ratification did not happen until December 15, 1791.[3] Here are the ratified amendments (now the Bill of Rights) or Articles I through X in “Addition to, and Amendment of, the Constitution:”

  • Article I. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
  • Article II. “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
  • Article III. “No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.”
  • Article IV. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue, but upon principal cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  • Article V. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia when in actual service, in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject, for the same offence, to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself; nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
  • Article VI.“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right of a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law; and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.”
  • ArticleVII. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reëxamined, in any court of the United States, than according to the rules in common law.”
  • Article “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
  • Article IX. “The enumeration, in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
  • Article “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people.”
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[1] U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2017).

[2] Bordewich, The First Congress at 13, 85-93, 107, 115-143, 158-59, 312 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016); House of Representatives, Amendments to the Constitution, The Founders Constitution.

[3] Article II of these proposed amendments was ratified on May 7, 1992, and is now the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Article I of the proposed amendments from 1789, therefore, is still pending. (Twenty-seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, Wikipedia.)

U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and Citizenship Naturalization, 1790

Important tasks for the First Congress of the U.S. were establishing the requirements for the first census of the country and for becoming a citizen by naturalization. [1]

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the very First Congress of the U.S. enacted a statute for the first U.S. census and a statute establishing requirements for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, both of which distinguished between “white” individuals and “slaves.” Nevertheless, it was still startling for me to discover these two statutes and the subsequent history of these aspects of U.S. law.

The First U.S. Census

On March 1, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that established the following categories for the first enumeration or census: “Free white males of sixteen years and upwards, including heads of families; Free white males under sixteen years; Free white females, including heads of families; All other free persons; and Slaves.” (Emphasis added.) It also called for identifying an individual’s occupation.[3]

These provisions were not controversial. There, however, was controversy, according to Fegus Bordewich, over whether the first census “was too ambitious, too detailed, and subdivided the population into [occupational] ‘classes too minute’” and was too invasive of privacy. (P. 196)

The First Naturalization Statute

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, in which he said, “Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.”(P. 180) [4]

Thereafter the members of the First Congress debated whether an oath of allegiance should suffice, whether there should be a residence requirement, whether there should be a national or a state-by-state requirement and whether foreign seamen could easily become citizens. The answer to these fears apparently was provided by Virginia’s Representative John Page, a large slave owner: “’It is nothing to us whether Jews, or Roman Catholics, settle amongst us; whether subjects of kings or citizens of free states wish to reside in the [U.S.], they will find it their interest to be good citizens; and neither their religious or political opinions can injure us, if we have good laws, well executed.’” (Pp. 196-97)

On March 26, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that limited naturalization to an “alien, being a “free white person.”(Emphasis added.) Although the statute did not define that term, it clearly excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and Asians from this method of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Other requirements were being a “resident” for one year of a state, possessing “good character,” and having taken “an oath or affirmation . . . to support the constitution of the [U.S.].” [5]

As discussed in another post, the “white” racial category (with subsequent additions of other racial categories) for naturalization remained in U.S. statutes until 1952 when Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act, 60 Stat. 163, 239 (1952), which states in section 311, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married.” [6]

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[1] See generally The U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2017); Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016)[the above text of this post cites to to specific pages of this book].

[2]  The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[3] An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790), U.S. Constitution.  The “white” category has been used in every decennial census through 2010 while “slave” was used through 1840.

[4] President Washington, State of the Union Address,  (Jan. 8, 1790), presidency.ucsb.edu/was/?pid=29431 , http:www.

[5] An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” 1 Stat. 103 (1790),

[6] Long History of Racism in U.S. Laws Regarding United States Citizenship, dwkcommentaries.com (June 24, 2016).