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Madison Notices the House of his Intent to Propose Amendments (4 May 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Madison Notices the House of his Intent to Propose Amendments (4 May 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 251.


Madison gave notice that he intended to submit proposals for amendments on the fourth Monday in May, which would have been 25 May 1789. The subject of amending the Constitution to secure certain rights and liberties as well as to address structural issues (such as the ratio of representation, federal control over the times and manner of elections, and the matter of direct taxation) had featured prominently in the ratification debates. Indeed, in their forms of ratification, several states had delineated lists of proposals, which ranged from securing those traditional liberties to issues of structure. Many of these forms of ratification also indicated that ratification was undertaken with the understanding that such amendments would be considered at an early stage. Such concerns over the extent of the new government's powers remained with many, despite ratification and the beginnings of the new government's operation.

Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for amendment. First, two-thirds of Congress (comprising both houses) may submit proposed amendments to the state legislatures for ratification. Second, two-thirds of the state legislatures may apply to Congress to call a convention to propose amendments, which would then be sent to the legislatures. Under each procedure, proposed amendments would be incorporated into the Constitution when three-fourths of the state legislatures ratified the proposed amendment.

Many of the Constitution's proponents feared that should a convention of states be called, then the whole body of the Constitution would be opened for reconsideration. In such a case, not only might the balanced system achieved at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention be lost, but a workable compromise would be difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Madison was among those that felt that, should Congress fail to address the paramount concerns that the Constitution as written did not adequately safeguard traditional liberties or limit federal encroachment on the powers reserved to the states, then calls for a convention would increase.

In the days following Madison's notice to submit his proposals to the House, Representatives Richard Bland Lee of Virginia and John Laurance of New York presented resolutions from the legislatures of those states calling for a convention of states to propose amendments (U.S. House Journal. 1789. 1st Cong., 1st sess., 5 & 6 May). The business of Congress, however, was occupied with matters of organising the new government and establishing a system of revenue. Indeed, Madison's presentation of his proposed amendments would ultimately be delayed until 8 June.

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