5 Common Misconceptions About the Constitution

1. The Constitution gave the all the people the right to vote.

No. Women, blacks, Catholics and white men without substantial property could not vote. Abigail Adams wrote a charming, though pointed, letter to her husband John Adams on March 31, 1776 reminding him “To Remember the Ladies.” But it was not until the 15th Amendment that the Constitution gave black men the vote, and not until the 19th Amendment did it “remember the Ladies.”

2. The rights we have today were all granted by the original text of the Constitution.

No. For instance, the right to travel comes from Magna Carta in 1215; Magna Carta is also the source of our right to due process, and the common law gave us the presumption of innocence in a criminal case. The Framers provided for no universal public education and no workers’ rights. Sure, the original Constitution recognized the right to a civil jury, a habeas corpus petition, and a prohibition on ex post facto laws. But beyond those, the main right that the 1787 Constitution gave was to keep slaves—hardly a promising start!

3. The Constitution created America as a democracy.

No. We do not live in “a democracy,” but a “republic”. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that democracies were a disaster.

4. The House passed The Bill of Rights with ten amendments.

No. Madison took over 200 proposals from the states and political leaders and submitted 17 to Congress, which he largely based on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. The House approved all 17 amendments, but the Senate rejected some (including Madison’s favorite on protecting conscience and the press) and combined others.

5. The First Amendment was always first.

No. It started out as the third amendment. (So much for the hortatory speeches that “the First Amendment is so important because the Framers put it first!”). In fact, the Framers originally put it after an amendment regarding the size of the Congress and another related to Congress’s pay. The original “first amendment” never passed, but the states did ratify the original “second amendment” concerning congressional salaries on May 7, 1992, making it the 27th Amendment.