On this day in 1790, New Hampshire ratifies eleven amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments (plus one other) had been submitted to the states for their consideration exactly four months earlier. Ten of these would eventually become the document that we think of as the Bill of Rights.
Our Bill of Rights contains ten amendments, but did you know that twelve proposed amendments were originally submitted to the states by the first United States Congress? Of these twelve proposed articles, the first was never ratified by the states. The second was ratified, but not until 1992. (It became our Twenty-Seventh Amendment.) The third of these congressional proposals was the one that actually became our First Amendment.
New Hampshire acted quickly once it was given the opportunity to ratify a Bill of Rights. Its speed is perhaps unsurprising. The Constitution’s lack of a Bill of Rights had nearly prevented the state from ratifying the Constitution—at all. When it finally did ratify the Constitution in June 1788, it sent along twelve proposed amendments as recommendations for the new Congress to consider.
When Congress later debated the possibility of constitutional amendments, one congressman from South Carolina proposed an amendment to limit the federal government’s ability to impose direct taxes. Representative Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire backed him up wholeheartedly, remarking that this is “an amendment of more importance than any yet obtained.”
“It had been supposed that the United States would not attempt to levy direct taxes,” Livermore continued according to the Annals of Congress, “but this was certainly a mistake. He believed nothing but the difficulty of managing the subject would deter them.”
Interestingly, Livermore was most fearful of federal taxes imposed directly on citizens. He thought the other amendments—protecting free speech, the right to keep and bear arms, or religious freedom—were less important, but not because those topics were unimportant. He simply didn’t believe those rights were in danger.
“As to the amendments already agreed to,” he said of these amendments, “[my constituents] would not value them more than a pinch of snuff; they went to secure rights never in danger.”
Hmm. Either way, the proposal to prevent direct taxes failed. And, even if it had succeeded, presumably the entire effort would have been undone by passage of the 16th Amendment.
Yet how many of you would vote for an amendment limiting the government’s power to impose direct taxes, given the opportunity today?!
Annals of Congress: Statement of Samuel Livermore on proposed Amendments to the Constitution (Aug. 22, 1789)
Carol Berkin, The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America's Liberties (2015)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)
The Bill of Rights: A Transcription (National Archives website)