At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), suggested prefacing the Constitution with a bill of rights. The delegates rejected the idea. However, the failure to mention basic rights soon became a major issue in the debates that followed over whether or not the proposed Constitution would be ratified, or approved.
The debate over the need for a bill of rights was sparked at the ratifying convention in Pennsylvania. Some delegates believed that guarantees of certain basic rights and liberties were missing from the proposed Constitution. They called for a number of amendments that would secure a wide range of liberties. These included the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and press, and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Majorities in the ratifying conventions of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina also called for numerous amendments. The recommendations differed from state to state. But most contained provisions that would limit the powers of the new federal (national) government. This was intended to protect the people from inconsistent and oppressive rule.
Some Federalists (those who supported ratification) argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary. Alexander Hamilton maintained that the proposed government would have specific and limited powers. Therefore, it could not endanger the fundamental liberties of the people. "Why," he asked, "declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?"
Nevertheless, the Federalists had to support the addition of a bill of rights. Without one, several key states would reject the constitution entirely. And no one wanted to face the possibility of another constitutional convention.