The Bill of Rights

Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI/Newscom

Visitors to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., look at a display of the United States Constitution

The first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States are called the Bill of Rights. These amendments describe the rights and liberties of the American people. They also provide legal protection for these rights.

Why the Bill of Rights Was Added to the Constitution

Many rights and liberties in the Bill of Rights originated in England. Some date as far back as 1215. That is when Magna Carta was written. This document marked the first step toward constitutional law in England. It said that people could not be deprived of their life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Ten states issued a bill of rights before the new U.S. federal (national) government did. Virginia was the first to do so, in 1776. Some of the rights in the state bills were included in the federal Bill of Rights.

A federal bill of rights was discussed at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates rejected the idea. But the states were not pleased. They would not approve the Constitution without a bill of rights. The states wanted the people’s rights to be clearly spelled out.

James Madison led the fight to adopt a bill of rights. He is known as the Father of the Constitution and the Father of the Bill of Rights. On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the ten amendments. The Bill of Rights then became part of the Constitution.

What the Bill of Rights Says

The most important rights in the Bill of Rights are the ones guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. They include the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press. The right of the people to assemble (gather together) is also guaranteed. So is the right of people to petition (make a request of) the government. These rights are known as the 1st Amendment Freedoms.

The 2nd Amendment notes the need for a "well regulated militia." A militia is a body of citizen soldiers called to serve during an emergency or a war. This amendment also guarantees the people's right to bear arms (own guns). This part of the 2nd Amendment is controversial.

The 3rd Amendment says people can refuse to let soldiers stay in their homes.

The 4th Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The 5th Amendment prohibits double jeopardy. This means that someone cannot be tried twice for the same crime. This amendment also says people cannot be forced to testify against themselves. And it guarantees "due process." This means that anyone accused of a crime must be properly notified of the charges and given a fair hearing.

The 6th Amendment gives an accused person the right to a speedy public trial by jury. The accused has the right to have a lawyer. And he or she has the right to confront hostile witnesses. Accused people are entitled to their own witnesses.

The 7th Amendment ensures trial by jury in civil lawsuits.

The 8th Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments."

The 9th Amendment says that the people have rights that are not specified in the Constitution.

The 10th Amendment is about powers not given to the government in the Constitution. It declares that the states or the people retain these powers.

Seventeen other amendments have been added to the U.S. Constitution. Some of those also deal with the basic rights of Americans.

Enforcing the Bill of Rights

State and federal courts are responsible for enforcing the Bill of Rights. The U.S. Supreme Court determines whether constitutional principles have been violated. But making such decisions is not easy. The court must answer difficult questions. One question is, To what extent can you limit individual freedoms for reasons of public safety?

Originally, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. After the Civil War (1861–65), its provisions were also applied to the states. The 14th Amendment (1868) was the first to specify a state's obligations.

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