An exchange of letters between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson frames this Article. In October of 1787, Madison, the intellectual and political force behind the successful adoption of the Constitution in September of that year, had forwarded a copy of the newly proposed document to Jefferson, who was then serving in Paris as America’s Minister to France. Jefferson’s reply was immediate. While mostly complimentary, he was highly critical of the absence of a bill of rights. “[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse,” he wrote. In fact, not only did the proposed constitution fail to include a bill of rights, the subject itself had barely been discussed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. It was raised only at the end of the Convention by Virginia’s George Mason and was then unanimously defeated by the represented states.
While Madison did not receive Jefferson’s December 1787 response until July 1788, it is clear that by the beginning of 1788, Madison and other Federalists recognized that the absence of a bill of rights provided the Anti-Federalist delegates with a powerful argument against ratification. To counter this claim, the Federalist delegates (including the Virginia delegate Madison), in state convention after state convention, agreed to support a bill of rights as an amendment to the Constitution, if it was ratified.