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Disparate Terminology used by the Sources to Refer to the Proposed Amendments in Reports of the House Discussions (20 & 21 August 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Disparate Terminology used by the Sources to Refer to the Proposed Amendments in Reports of the House Discussions (20 & 21 August 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 268.


The varying terminology used to identify the various provisions in the Committee of the Whole report is somewhat confusing beginning with the fourth amendment. The discussions in the Annals and the Congressional Register, owing to the fact that the proposed amendments were intended to be incorporated into specified portions of the Constitution's text, refer to all the proposed alterations of a discrete section of the Constitution as a single amendment. The various propositions contained within that section are referred to individually as clauses or propositions. Thus, all the propositions intended to be inserted into Article 1, section 9, between paragraphs 2 and 3, are referred to as the fourth amendment. This includes eight separate clauses or propositions (for example, first: 'Congress shall make no laws touching religion...'; second: 'The freedom of speech, and of the press...'; third: 'A well regulated militia...'; etc.). The House, just like the Committee of the Whole, examined each of these provisions individually.

The newspaper accounts, on the other hand, itemized each individual provision as a separate amendment (thus, by that reckoning, the fourth amendment: 'Congress shall make no laws...'; the fifth amendment: 'The freedom of speech...'; the sixth amendment: 'A well regulated milita...'; etc.). This means that with the adoption of the first provision of the fourth amendment, the provision may be identified in different sources as either 'the first provision' or 'the fourth amendment'. This fact also means that by the time the provision that the Annals refers to as the fifth amendment is taken up, by the itemized reckoning, the same provision is referred to as the tenth amendment.

The fact that none of the sources tend to be overly precise in the term used for a provision (alternatively referring to 'proposition', 'clause', or 'amendment' at various points) increases the potential confusion. Further, the fact that all sources become much less detailed in reporting discussions on the floor during this portion of the negotiation process also increases the potential for confusion. In general, however, the discussions on the floor proceed down the list compiled in the Committee of the Whole report in order, allowing one, generally, to gather which provision is under discussion. At a couple of points, however, precisely which provision is under discussion is uncertain. These uncertainties will be discussed individually as they become relevant.

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