Bill of Rights Newspaper Printings (1789)
Written by Fiona Maxwell, PhD Candidate, Department of History, 2024
These newspaper printings from 1789 contain two versions of the Constitutional amendments that would eventually become the Bill of Rights. Viewing the text of the Bill of Rights alongside other news of the day mirrors the way that many eighteenth-century readers first encountered these founding principles and provides a glimpse into the broader political context surrounding their origin.
The first draft of seventeen proposed amendments appeared in the August 29 issue of the Gazette of the United States, a Federalist newspaper printed in New York and edited by John Fenno. The final draft of the amendments – since reduced to twelve – shared the front page with a transcript of President George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation in the October 22 issue of the United States Chronicle, a newspaper edited by Bennett Wheeler in Providence, Rhode Island.
Printed documents enjoy a significant place in the origin story of the United States. Newspaper coverage of these initial amendments invites inquiry into the role of the press in the creation and legitimization of the federal government and in the formation of a national identity. Originating in a specific culture of print, the Bill of Rights evolved alongside centuries of political, legal, and social developments. The lengthy process of revision, interpretation, and canonization that resulted in the current understanding of the Bill of Rights reminds us that these amendments were – and remain – products and shapers of history.
These two newspaper printings reveal the ways in which the ten amendments now known as the Bill of Rights developed through deliberation. While some delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that the Constitution should articulate individual rights that would be protected from federal power, many others opposed the idea. Some thought that enumerating specific rights was unnecessary or even dangerous. Nevertheless, after several large states proposed adding amendments, Virginia representative James Madison spearheaded the process and identified nine areas for a Committee of Eleven, appointed by the House of Representatives, to consider. In the seventeen amendments sent by the House to the Senate for approval, the First Amendment as we recognize it today is difficult to find. The draft reprinted in the Gazette was the first version to include the exact phrase “freedom of speech.”
This principle was enumerated separately and after the freedom of religion, as Articles III and IV. The Senate subsequently cut the number of amendments to twelve. The original first article, which concerned the distribution of representation in the House, was never ratified by the states, and the second, which addressed Congressional salaries, was not ratified until 1992. The revised third article ultimately became the First Amendment and addressed both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
The newspaper format offers a glimpse into the political developments that occurred while the amendments were being refined. The final draft of the Bill of Rights shared the front page of the Chronicle with a transcript of George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation, which was issued the day after the Senate sent the amendments to the states. The connections between the Bill of Rights and the Proclamation were deeper than chronological coincidence. Washington had assumed the new office of President only six months previously, and his calling for a public day of thanksgiving provoked opponents of federal power. Washington took the opportunity to celebrate the construction of a new government committed to protecting individual rights, thanking God “for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted.” He connected the rights enshrined in the future First Amendment to the democratic dissemination of knowledge, represented by the circulation of newspapers, by expressing thanks “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge.” Another key item featured in the same issue was a report from Wilmington, North Carolina, a state that had previously refused to ratify the Constitution. The dispatch, which was originally printed in the State-Gazette of North Carolina, expressed support for the Constitution now that the Bill of Rights was included, and it predicted that the amendments would “undoubtedly satisfy the minds of all its enemies.”
Printed documents have played a central role in scholarly debates concerning the formation of an American national government and identity. In Letters of the Republic, Michael Warner argues that the printed nature of a text acquired as much authority for eighteenth-century readers as the content of its argument. The “nominally impersonal” nature of print, Warner claims, encouraged colonial subjects to imagine themselves as a nation through “the act of reading.” Following the Revolution, the new federal government based its legitimacy in the production and dissemination of printed constitutional texts. Yet, Trish Loughran, who received her PhD in English from the University of Chicago, draws our attention to how material infrastructure placed practical limitations on the vision of the founding of the United States as a “text-based process.” In The Republic in Print, Loughran shows that Revolutionary America lacked a national print network. Instead, it possessed “a proliferating variety of local and regional reading publics scattered across a vast and diverse geographical space.” These newspaper printings of the Bill of Rights demonstrate the ways in which the press enabled the spread of these eighteenth-century principles throughout the populace of the United States.
The interpretation of the Bill of Rights has evolved alongside political developments, leading to its gradual canonization as a national symbol. In 1991, the University of Chicago Law School hosted a Bicentennial Symposium to discuss the history and legacy of the Bill of Rights. In his introductory remarks, law professor Geoffrey Stone noted that “there were few, if any, celebrations of the Centennial of our Bill of Rights,” but “we have been inundated with seemingly endless conferences, symposia, and debates celebrating its Bicentennial.” The reason for this, Stone explained, was because during “its first hundred years, the Bill of Rights played only a minor role in our constitutional system and our national consciousness.”
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the amendments acquired a different and more significant meaning in legal doctrine and political discourse. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the Bill of Rights to state and local governments, which enabled courts in the mid-twentieth century to use its provisions to protect the rights of minorities from oppressive social majorities. The Bill of Rights entered mainstream politics during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who drew on its rhetoric to urge Americans to support the New Deal and resist Nazi Germany. Roosevelt presented a “Second Bill of Rights” in 1944, which cast social welfare and economic security as additional rights that belonged to all Americans “regardless of station, race, or creed.”
The current Bill of Rights is not the document printed in these 1789 newspapers. According to Geoffrey Stone, the Bill of Rights is the product of “long-term social, economic, cultural, and political changes.” The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution as a whole, Stone asserts, are “dynamic, not ossified.” The rights protected by these amendments have informed centuries of legal challenges, domestic and foreign policymaking, social movements, scholarly debates, and public conversation. Original printings of the Bill of Rights thus allow us to study the United States at the early and dynamic moments of its founding, as well as to gauge how the nation has evolved over time.