Articles

The Bill of Rights and the First Federal Congress

September 9, 2019


It was a very tenuous time in American history.
They needed to get it right very quickly in order to keep the public’s confidence in
what they were doing. I’m Charlene Bickford and I direct the First Federal Congress Project
at The George Washington University. The First Federal Congress Project’s goal is to publish
the complete documentary record of the most important and productive Congress in United
States history. They were left to create the whole federal government structure. They had
to found the executive departments. They had to flesh out the judiciary of the United States.
Seventeen volumes have been published and we have three that are in page proof and indexing
stage. And two more to go after that. We were looking for every single piece of evidence
that relates to the First Federal Congress. This is a letter from Representative Fisher
Ames of Massachusetts. In this letter is commentary on the amendments that were introduced by
James Madison, what we know today as the Bill of Rights. His final conclusion about the
amendments introduced by James Madison: “Upon the whole it may do some good towards quieting
men…and may get the mover some popularity, which he wishes.” The First Federal Congress
Project got started in the 1950s with Ford Foundation grants. Primary funder is the National
Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making entity within the National
Archives. We have collected about, I think it’s 14,000 documents in the project’s
history. Gone to every repository in the country that has documents dated between 1787 and
1791. Which meant searching 93 newspapers in case some member of Congress sent a speech
to his hometown paper. Over 600 petitions submitted to the First Congress. We worked
with shorthand notes of debates. Every letter written to or from a member of the First Federal
Congress. We’re still finding things and new collections are still opening up. The
Supreme Court has used our volume called, “Creating the Bill of Rights.” And we’re
providing all the evidence for people to work with long into the future.

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