A Virginian Statesman Proposes Amendments to the Constitution

Richard Henry Lee was a Virginia statesman best known for proposing the motion calling for independence from Britain during the Second Continental Congress. In this letter to fellow Virginian and anti-Federalist George Mason, Lee sets out to correct what the Anti-Federalists found to be the most glaring flaw with the Constitution adopted by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787: its lack of a specific enumeration of individual rights. Supporters of the Constitution initially argued that such a Bill of Rights was unnecessary, since the document was not intended to give the federal government powers not specifically spelled out. But Anti-Federalists like Lee were insistent, and over 200 proposals were eventually submitted from around the country. Lee proposes a number of amendments, several of which were incorporated into the first ten amendments to the Constitution (collectively known as the Bill of Rights), including those safeguarding freedom of religion and the right to a trial by jury, and prohibiting excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

It having been found from universal experience, that the most express declarations and reservations are necessary to protect the just rights and liberty of mankind from the silent, powerful and ever active conspiracy of those who govern; and it appearing to be the sense of the good people of America, by the various bills or declarations of rights whereon the government of the greater number of states are founded. That such precautions are necessary to restrain and regulate the exercise of the great powers given to rulers. In conformity with these principles, and from respect for the public sentiment on this subject, it is submitted.—That the new constitution proposed for the government of the United States be bottomed upon a declaration or bill of rights, clearly and precisely stating the principles upon which this social compact is founded, to wit: That the rights of conscience in matters of religion ought not to be violated—That the trial by jury in criminal and civil cases, and the modes prescribed by the common law for the safety of life in criminal prosecutions, shall be sacred—That standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to liberty, and ought not be permitted, unless assented to by two-thirds of the members composing each house of the legislature under the new constitution That the elections should be free and frequent; That the right administration of justice should be secured by the independency of the judges; That excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments, should not be demanded or inflicted; That the right of the people to assemble peaceably, for the purpose of petitioning the legislature, shall not be prevented; that the citizen shall not be exposed to unreasonable searches and seizure of their persons, houses, papers or property; and it is necessary for the good of society, that the administration of government be conducted with all possible maturity of judgment, for which reason it hath been the practice of civilized nations, and so determined by every state in the Union: That a council of state or privy council should be appointed to advise and assist in the arduous business assigned to the executive power. Therefore let the new constitution be so amended, as to admit the appointment of a privy council, to consist of eleven members chosen by the president, but responsible for the advice they may give. For which purpose the advice given shall be entered in a council book, and signed by the giver in all affairs of great moment, and that the counselors act under an oath of office. In order to prevent the dangerous blending of the legislative and executive powers, and to secure responsibility, the privy, and not the senate shall be joined with the president in the appointment of all officers, civil and military, under the new constitution; that the constitution be so altered as not to admit the creation of a vice-president, when duties as assigned may be discharged by the privy council, except in the instance of proceeding in the senate, which may be supplied by a speaker chosen from the body of senators by themselves, as usual, that so may be avoided the establishment of a great officer of state, who is sometimes to be joined with legislature, and sometimes to be administer the government, rendering responsibility difficult, besides giving unjust and needless pre-eminence to that state from whence this officer may have come. That such parts of the new constitution be amended as provide imperfectly for the trial of criminals by a jury of the vicinage [vicinity or neighborhood], and to supply the omission of a jury trial in civil causes or disputes about property between individuals, whereby the common law is directed, and as generally it is secured by the several state constitutions. That such parts of the new constitution be amended, as permit the vexatious and oppressive calling of citizens from their own country, and all controversies between citizens of different states and between citizens and foreigners, to be tried in a far distant court, an as it may be without a jury, whereby in a multitude of cases, the circumstances of distance and expence may compel numbers to submit to the most unjust and ill-founded demand—That in order to secure the rights of the people more effectually from violation, the power and respectability of the house of representatives be increased, by increasing the number of delegates to that house, where the popular interest must chiefly depend for protection—That the constitution be so amended as to increase the number of votes necessary to determine questions in cases where a bare majority may be seduced by strong motives of interest to injure and oppress the minority of the community, as in commercial regulations, where advantage may be taken of circumstances to ordain rigid and premature laws, that will in effect amount to monopolies, to the great impoverishment of those states whose peculiar situation expose them to such injuries.

Source | Richard Henry Lee, "Letter to George Mason," in Merrill Jensen, ed., Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976), 65-66.
Creator | Richard Henry Lee
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Richard Henry Lee, “A Virginian Statesman Proposes Amendments to the Constitution,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 16, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/739.