James Madison Debates a Bill of Rights

Today is Bill of Rights Day! We celebrate the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Check out our Congress Creates the Bill of Rights eBook and app too!

What doubts, concerns, and misgivings arose during the development of the Bill of Rights?

That’s the framing question in a new lesson plan from the National Humanities Center. Students can explore the debates over the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution.

The centerpiece of the lesson is a letter James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1788, in which Madison discussed the pros and cons of a bill of rights. It’s one of several letters these men exchanged on the topic. It comes from Founders Online — our searchable archive of the correspondence and other writings of six of the Founding Fathers.

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1788

Students will interact with three excerpts of the letter, each accompanied by a series of close-reading analytical questions: The first explains the context of the debate, including reasons why a bill of rights might not be necessary. The second explores Madison’s reasons for supporting a bill of rights, and the third discusses how he believed such a list of rights, if written, should be structured.

In two interactive exercises, students will review vocabulary from Madison’s letter and review the central points of textual analysis.

The lesson plan includes teaching instructions, background information, questions for textual analysis and close reading, a follow-up assignment, a vocabulary list, and a student-version PDF.

James Madison Debates a Bill of Rights” is one of several lesson plans created by the the National Humanities Center based on documents available on Founders OnlineItalicized text comes directly from “James Madison Debates a Bill of Rights.”

Founders Online is our searchable archive of the correspondence and other writings of six of the Founding Fathers. Madison’s letter is just one of thousands of transcriptions of documents from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. You and your students can access the written record of the original thoughts, ideas, debates, and principles of our democracy.

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