1788: John Hancock Proposing the Addition of the Bill of Rights to the Federal Constitution

Milestones on the Road to Freedom

By Albert Herter, 1942

Oil on canvas, 110 x 130 in.

Gift of the artist and his son, Governor Christian Herter.
Unveiled December 16, 1942.

The Federal Constitution, which was modeled on that adopted by the Commonwealth in 1780, was drafted in Philadelphia in 1797 and required the approval of nine states for ratification. When taken up by the Massachusetts Convention in January 1788, many members opposed this version of the document as it lacked a Bill of Rights that would protect citizens from a strong central government. To meet the opposition, Governor John Hancock, who presided, proposed amendments that would guarantee certain privileges including freedom of speech, press, and religion, as well as the right to bear arms, regulated search and seizure, a speedy trial, and a trial by jury, among others. The Bill of Rights, which was probably drafted by Theophilus Parsons, was submitted to the assembly not as conditions for ratification, but as amendments to be considered by the first Congress. Upon ratification by Massachusetts in 1788, key states later also ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be the first item of business considered by the new government.

This mural shows Hancock standing in the pulpit of the Meeting House on Long Lane (now Federal Street) in Boston proposing the Bill of Rights to the assembled group. In 1791, the first ten amendments – the Bill of Rights – which define and protect the rights of all Americans, were added to the Constitution.

mural of 1788: John Hancock Proposing the Addition of the Bill of Rights to the Federal Constitution