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February 3, 1788

May 03, 2021 - 5 minute read

John Hancock Proposing the Addition of the Bill of Rights to the Federal Constitution

It was a dramatic entrance. Racked with pain and “wrapped in his flannels,” John Hancock was carried by his servants into the Long Lane Congregational Church at 11:00 a.m. on January 30. George Benson, a Rhode Islander viewing the convention from the gallery, noted in his journal that Hancock’s appearance “diffus’d much pleasure in the gallery and below.” 

Although elected President of the Massachusetts ratifying convention, Hancock had not attended due to frequent recurring bouts of painful gout which at times bound him to a wheelchair. Detractors had insinuated the severity of his pain had been feigned as an excuse to avoid taking a public stand on the Constitution, but ruse or not, he was now in attendance and the galleries were filled with spectators anxious to learn his opinion and how he might vote.

After three weeks of intense debate and lengthy expositions on the proposed Constitution by its advocates and opponents, the official record of the Massachusetts ratifying convention reported “the conversation on the Constitution, by paragraphs, be ended. Mr. Parsons moved that this Convention do assent to, and ratify, this Constitution.”  Moments later, William Heath, commissioned as a brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia in 1774 and in command during the last stage of the battles of Lexington and Concord, stood to address the convention.

 After a “long and painful investigation of the federal Constitution,” he began, “we are soon to decide on a system of government, digested not for the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts only – not for the present people of the United States only – but for millions of people yet unborn; a system of government, not for a nation of slaves, but for a people as free and virtuous as any on earth; not for a conquered nation, subdued to our will, but for a people who have fought, who have bled, and who have conquered.”

After Heath completed his statement with a plea for ratification, Hancock rose. There appeared to him, he said, a “great dissimilarity of sentiments on the Constitution.” In the afternoon, he would “hazard a proposition for their consideration.”  What he did not divulge was that a deal had been struck, engineered by Federalists.  Nathaniel Gorham, Rufus King, Tristram Dalton, Theophilus Parsons, and several others had persuaded Hancock that his support was critical to ratification. They proposed that amendments be offered to address some objections to the Constitution. If these were endorsed by Hancock, they urged, support for the Constitution would be all but guaranteed. 

“The Old Patriot,” Samuel Adams, was in on the compromise. Earlier in the day, Dalton had written to Michael Hodge, “I will tell you, as a confidential communication, that Mr. S. Adams will come out in favor of the Constitution. This and the Governor [Hancock} on the same side will settle the matter favorably. All this is scarcely known out of our caucus.”  King was also sending confidential letters. Writing on the same day to James Madison, he noted, “I cannot predict the issue, but our hopes are increasing – if Mr. Hancock does not disappoint our present expectations…but his character is not entirely free from a portion of caprice – this however is confidential.”

As promised, in the afternoon Hancock recommended the convention “adopt the form of government proposed” and consider “whether the introduction of some general amendments” might remove the doubts and quiet the apprehensions of gentlemen.” To the surprise of many, Hancock’s motion was seconded by Samuel Adams. Confessing having had doubts about the Constitution, Adams said, Hancock’s proposition “will have a tendency to remove such doubts…A proposal of this sort, coming from Massachusetts, from her importance, will have great weight.” Several States had already ratified the Constitution as written, he added, “but we know there is a diversity of opinion even in those States.  If this convention should particularize the amendments necessary to be proposed, it appears to me it must have weight in other States where conventions have not yet met.”  The only difficulty was whether “it is best to accept this Constitution on conditional amendments, or to rely on amendments in future, as the Constitution provides.”

Clearly designed to achieve consensus in favor of ratification, the “recommendatory amendments” provided first “that it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised.” The second stated there shall be one representative to every thirty thousand persons until the whole number amount to a number not specified, but later agreed upon at two hundred.  Third, in reference to Article 1 Section 4 of the Constitution, Congress should not exercise power over elections except when a State would neglect making adequate provision for equal representation. Fourth, Congress shall not lay direct taxes, except when monies arising from the impost and excise “are insufficient for public exigencies.”

The fifth amendment prohibited Congress from establishing commercial monopolies. The sixth and eighth guaranteed indictment by a grand jury and jury trials in civil actions. The seventh amendment limited Supreme Court jurisdiction between citizens of different States to disputes involving the value of ___ dollars, the number to be specified later. Finally, the ninth amendment removed “without consent of Congress” in the last paragraph of Article 1 Section 9, making an absolute prohibition against federal officers receiving certain benefits from foreign nations.

Hancock’s proposal and Adams’ support of it encouraged the Constitution’s advocates but raised additional questions. John Taylor said he liked the idea of amendments and had consulted several authorities, but “did not see in any of them any power given to propose amendments.” William Widgery, anxious to defeat ratification, said the convention had the power only to “adopt or reject the Constitution.” Some Federalists were concerned that proposing amendments might have an adverse effect by admitting the Constitution was flawed.  Nevertheless, for the next two days the amendments were debated, with Sam Adams going through each one individually, concluding “they are all, in every particular, or so general a nature, and so equally interesting to every State, that I cannot but persuade myself to think they would all readily join with us in the measure proposed by” Gov. Hancock.

On February 2, the convention voted to submit the amendments to a committee of twenty-five delegates, but the momentum had changed, and ratification seemed almost certain.

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