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December 13, 2006

Background on the Bill of Rights and the New York Ratification of the Bill of Rights

Federal Hall’s Special Role in the History of the Bill of Rights

Federal Hall, a National Park Service National Memorial, and the National Archives and Records Administration are hosting a special four-day display beginning December 14 of the original Ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights by the State of New York. The exhibit marks the first time this National Archives document has been on view in New York City since it was signed in 1790, according to the records of the agency. The National Archives holds in trust all permanently valuable records of the Federal Government including the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

The display headlines a series of events, December 14 -17, that celebrate the arrival of the National Archives to the historic site. The National Archives and the National Park Service (NPS) are engaged in a multi-year effort to develop a permanent National Archives interactive exhibition for Federal Hall. Funding for the new exhibit and the permanent exhibit is being provided by the Foundation for the National Archives and the National Park Service.

A Draft for Democratic Freedoms

The United States constitutional government and the democratic rights cherished by its citizens are deeply rooted in the place where Federal Hall National Memorial now stands, at 26 Wall Street, New York City. The original building on this site stood witness to events that brought about the birth of a new nation: George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States at the site, and the first U.S. Congress convened there. It was also on that Wall Street corner where Congress drafted and passed a resolution proposing 12 articles as first amendments to the new Constitution, now known as the Bill of Rights.

The proposed articles guaranteed individual rights and freedoms and were critical to the formation of a democratic government. Throughout the summer of 1789, the first United States Congress engaged in passionate debate about the proposed amendments. Such was the intensity of views about the rights to be included in the Constitution that some states resisted ratifying a Constitution that had no guarantee of individual freedoms.

On September 25, by joint resolution, Congress passed 12 articles of amendment. President George Washington signed this resolution on October 2, 1789 and forwarded copies to the 11 states that had ratified the U.S. Constitution. Washington also forwarded courtesy copies to Rhode Island and North Carolina, states that had not ratified the Constitution and could not act on this resolution.

The 11 states began the process of ratifying these 12 articles. Each state was to hold a referendum, asking its voters to approve or disapprove each article. Ratification of any article by at least three quarters of the states meant acceptance of that article. Six weeks after receiving the resolution, North Carolina ratified the Constitution. (North Carolina had resisted ratifying the Constitution because the document did not guarantee individual rights.) During this process Vermont became the first state to join the Union after the Constitution was ratified, and Rhode Island (the lone hold out) also joined. Each state tallied its votes and forwarded the results to Congress.

New York, the seventh state to forward its results to the capital, voted to approve all articles except the second. The second article, which regulated the ability of Congress to raise its salary, was eventually ratified in 1992 as the 27th amendment to the Constitution.

When the final votes were counted, ten of the 12 articles were ratified. These articles, originally numbered three through 12, became the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, also known as the U.S. Bill of Rights, on December 15, 1791.

Governor George Clinton’s Role in New York

The state of New York signed and sealed its Ratification of the Bill of Rights on March 27, 1790, and sent it to the Federal Government. The document, however, did not have far to travel. New York City was then both the capital of the United States and the capital of the state of New York.

It was signed by George Clinton, New York’s first and longest-serving governor (22 years in total). Considered "trusty and beloved" by his fellow citizens, this Founding Father has a rich history of his own. He was a Revolutionary War hero and was once widely thought to be a potential candidate for the first Vice Presidency. However, his opposition to the Constitution eliminated his chances. He had wanted to make New York’s ratification of the Constitution contingent on the passage within a short period of time of a bill of rights. But he backed off at the last minute when he realized that the Constitution would be ratified with or without New York’s participation.

Clinton did become the nation’s fourth Vice President, serving under both Jefferson and Madison. He died in office and became the first person to lie in state at the United States Capitol. He spent almost 100 years at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, and was reinterred in New York in 1908.

A Ratification Rarity

The Ratification document going on view, having been sent from the state of New York to the Federal Government, is a Federal record. It is thought that the state’s copy of the original amendments sent by Congress to New York is now lost. New York State Archives believes that the state’s document was destroyed by a fire in 1911 that burned many of the papers of Governor Clinton.

New York’s ratification document is unlike the documents of other states. The New York legislature took the unusual step of copying the 12 articles into the text of its legislation ratifying the Bill of Rights. This ratification is now a Federal record, part of the chain of evidence of citizens’ rights that is in the stewardship of the National Archives.

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