Ep. 21: The Bill of Rights

AP_Documents_BillofRightsIn this episode, Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers discuss the Bill of Rights, including its antecedents in British history and the colonial context, the politics that brought it about, and its legacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The Bill of Rights is one of the most revered documents in American history and culture. Like the Declaration of Independence, its very wording is ingrained in the American psyche. Unlike the Declaration, however, the Bill of Rights is actually a legally binding document. Despite the contemporary reverence accorded the document, it was actually produced by the First Federal Congress to allay the political tensions that emerged from the Constitutional Convention and the process of ratification. Though spearheaded by James Madison in 1789, citizens contributed to the debate over the need for a Bill of Rights and what it should contain in local and state conventions all across the country over the previous eighteen months. The Bill of Rights is simultaneously the culmination of centuries of British history, the American revolutionary experience, and the hopes of a revolutionary generation uncertain of the new republic’s long-term viability. Subsequently, the importance and meaning of the Bill of Rights has changed over the last two centuries along with the nation itself.


  • Where did Americans get the idea for a bill of rights?
  • What made a Bill of Rights necessary in 1788 but not in 1783?
  • What were the arguments both for and against adopting a Bill of Rights?
  • How did the politics of the late 1780s shape that debate?
  • When did the Bill of Rights begin to take on the importance we now accord it?
  • What is “incorporation?”


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