Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University. Today is the anniversary of congressional approval of the Bill of Rights in 1789.
Unlike the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in which several United States Founding Fathers contributed to the final document, the first 10 amendments were largely the work of James Madison. In fact, without Representative Madison's efforts in the first Congress, the matter of balancing the strong powers of the federal government set forth in the Constitution with guarantees of individual liberties may well have been left to state actions.
The major problem, however, was that states were slow to incorporate bills of rights into their constitutions. In 1789, for example, only two of the 13 states had constitutions in which freedom of the press was viewed as inviolate. Most state bills were as weak as Massachusetts' 1780 commitment: ''The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state; it ought not, therefore, to be restricted in this commonwealth.''
Madison viewed congressional action on a Bill of Rights as honoring the concerns of several state ratifying conventions in 1787-88. To be sure, most of these states ratified the Constitution, but their expectations were that the first Congress would view a Bill of Rights as the first order of business.
Complicating Madison's work on the amendments was his home state of Virginia, which looked at the Constitution with mixed emotions (approving it by a narrow margin) and where Patrick Henry thundered his concern. Madison would pay the price for so firm an attachment to the Constitution: He was defeated in his bid for a seat in the US Senate and barely won election to the House.
No matter. Madison's perseverance with his House and Senate colleagues was the price of success and of liberty for subsequent generations of Americans. His efforts fitted into a history with as many distinct phases as the amendments that were ultimately adopted by the states.
1. On March 4, 1789, the first Congress under the Constitution was scheduled to meet. But the House didn't convene until April 1; the Senate, April 6. Both houses adopted rules and then went on to the matter of raising revenues for the new government.
2. On April 30 George Washington was inaugurated as the first President. With this lull in the work of Congress came numerous suggestions from the states for articles to be included in the Bill of Rights.
3. Madison set May 25 as the date for introducing the subject of amendments into the House, but revenue measures prevented his schedule from being met.
4. Two weeks later, Madison urged that the House take up the matter without further delay, but his passion was not shared by his colleagues, who went about other business.
5. On July 21 Madison introduced the topic again, with the House referring it to a committee that included Madison. And although the committee completed its work in a week, the House tabled its report.
6. Madison continued to press for action. ''I believe that the great mass of people who opposed (the Constitution),'' he said, ''disliked it because it did not contain effectual provisions against the encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercises the sovereign power.''
7. The House finally dealt with the issue in a Committee of the Whole and Aug. 24 sent 17 amendments to the Senate.
8. The upper house set Aug. 31 as the date for consideration, but delays prevented initiation of action until Sept. 2. What is more, the Senate approved only 12 amendments.
9. On Sept. 19 a conference committee met to resolve differences; six days later both houses had approved 12 amendments and sent them on to the states.
10. On Dec. 15, 1791, 10 of the amendments would become part of the Constitution. Appropriately, it was the ratification of Madison's home state, Virginia, that put the Bill of Rights into effect.