The Bill of Rights is a list of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These are written guarantees protecting the rights of American citizens and limiting the power of government. In this article, we will walk you through everything you need to know about the Bill of Rights.
What Is the Bill of Rights?
The United States Bill of Rights is there to protect the civil liberties of every American, such as the freedom of speech, press, and religion and the right to an attorney. It was written by James Madison and ratified in 1791.
The Bill of Rights was initially referred to as the Amendments. The word amendment denotes “change”. The Bill of Rights pertains to the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution lays out the ultimate law of the land. Every law that is passed needs to be in line with the principles of the Constitution.
Nevertheless, changes, that is, amendments to the document, are allowed, although they don’t happen often. In more than 200 years, only 27 amendments to the Constitution have been ratified.
The Overview of the Bill of Rights
In this section, we will go through all ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment
The first of the Bill of Rights amendments pertains to the freedom of speech, religion, and press and the right to peacefully assemble. In other words, everyone has the right to freely express themselves, practice any religion, report on any news, and gather for a peaceful protest.
It should be noted that these freedoms have certain limitations. For instance, while everyone has freedom of speech, threatening somebody is prohibited. Likewise, in terms of freedom of the press, libel, which pertains to the press knowingly publishing false information to damage someone’s reputation, is unlawful.
The Second Amendment
The Second Amendment protects the people’s rights to carry and bear arms. There has been a series of heated debates over this amendment due to excessive gun violence in the United States. However, there haven’t been any changes made to this amendment.
The Third Amendment
The Third Amendment, also known as the quartering amendment, directly addresses a common problem American colonists had in the 18th century. Namely, they were required to provide shelter and food to British soldiers, even when it wasn’t wartime. This amendment may not be as relevant today, but it’s no surprise as the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to resolve the issues that were happening at the time of writing.
This amendment forbids the government from forcing individuals to have soldiers in their homes. However, there is an exception where this can be allowed under special circumstances during war.
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. The authorities must have probable cause to secure warrants.
Theoretically speaking, law enforcement isn’t permitted to search or seize anything without a warrant. However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as when the homeowner consents to the search or if there is incriminating evidence in plain sight. A warrant isn’t necessary to search a person, car, or school.
The Fifth Amendment
You’ve probably heard the phrase “I plead the fifth” in Hollywood shows and movies or on televised trials. This refers to the fifth amendment constituting the US Bill of Rights.
Under this amendment, no one can be forced to testify against themselves in a trial. Therefore, anyone may refuse to answer a question that might incriminate them by pleading the fifth.
In addition, this amendment prohibits “double jeopardy”, which means that no one can be tried for the same crime twice. The prosecution has only one chance to get someone convicted for an unlawful act. For someone to be deprived of “life, liberty, or property”, “due process of law” needs to take place.
The Sixth Amendment
This amendment covers the rights of those who are accused of a crime and put on trial. They have the right to a speedy trial, meaning that they can’t be kept in jail for a long time while awaiting trial.
It also pertains to the right of the defendant to legal representation and an impartial jury. Having an attorney is a critical part of establishing a criminal defense, which gives the defendant a fair chance in court. Furthermore, they have the right to be informed about the nature of the crimes they are accused of.
The Seventh Amendment
This amendment ensures that the criminal justice system is fair to everyone. It extends the right to a jury trial to civil cases, such as traffic accidents and disputes over property. However, this only involves trials in federal courts, while those held in state courts are resolved by a judge.
The Eighth Amendment
The eighth amendment is probably the most vague one in the Bill. It bans cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail. The ambiguity lies in the word choice, specifically the words “excessive”, “cruel”, and “unusual”. The difficulty to agree on the definition of these terms has sparked an array of debates, especially in terms of the questions surrounding capital punishment.
The Ninth Amendment
Listing rights created a potential issue, that is, the possibility of the rights that were not mentioned being taken away from individuals. Thus, this amendment attempts to protect other rights of citizens that were not listed in the Constitution.
In simple terms, just because there is no section in the Constitution that states that everyone has the right to sleep, that doesn’t mean people don’t have that right. However, this amendment has sparked debates about whether this includes or excludes certain rights, such as the woman’s right to abortion.
The Tenth Amendment
Finally, the last amendment that constitutes the Bill of Rights states that the government’s power is limited to the rules expressed in the Constitution. If it’s not mentioned, it’s up to the individual states or people to decide.
A Brief History of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Before we get into the Bill of Rights history, we should discuss how the Constitution was formed. There were a number of events that preceded the inking of this document. These notable events took place around the time of the American Revolutionary War.
The Causes of the Revolutionary War and the First Rights Acts
The Revolutionary War was fought from 1775 to 1783 between British forces and the American colonies. Before the war, the British government introduced the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts in 1765 and 1767, respectively, imposing taxes without allowing the colonists to have any representation.
This caused the thirteen colonies to rebel, leading to a series of incidents, including the Boston Massacre, where five colonists were shot and killed by the British soldiers.
The situation escalated when in 1773, a group of disguised colonists threw over 300 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor. The historic event was dubbed the Boston Tea Party. This was followed by the British government issuing the Coercive Acts, which would allow Britain to assert even more dominance over the colonies.
In September 1774, delegates of all but one of the thirteen colonies, among whom were George Washington and Samuel Adams, assembled in Philadelphia. The purpose of this assembly was to voice their frustrations with the British government and the Coercive Acts in particular. This is known as the First Continental Congress.
Congress adopted the Declaration of Colonial Rights, which has significance in the development of the Bill of Rights. In it, they addressed the issue of taxation without representation. They also created the Articles of Association, which urged the colonies to protest the Coercive Acts by refusing to import goods from the British Isles.
Despite these attempts to solve the disputes, the American Revolutionary War would begin a year later. Although the colonies declared independence on July 4, 1776, the war wouldn’t end until September 1783.
The Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation present the first constitution of the United States written by the members of Congress. There were six drafts in total, the first one being composed by Benjamin Franklin. The final version was agreed on in 1777, but it wouldn’t be ratified for another four years. This would lead to the formation of the constitution and subsequently the addition of the United States Bill of Rights.
The Formation of the Constitution and the Addition of the Bill of Rights
Although, technically, Congress was the central authority, there were a number of limitations in the Articles of Confederation. For instance, every individual state had its own currency since Congress wasn’t allowed to coin money.
In addition, Congress couldn’t collect taxes, and in order to pass a new law, nine out of twelve states needed to agree. There was also no national court system that would protect the citizens’ rights.
The state delegates, including George Washington and James Madison, gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, as it was evident that the Article of Confederation required certain changes. They quickly realized that updating this document wouldn’t be enough, so they drafted a completely new one. The Constitution was approved by the convention on September 17, 1787.
On June 8, 1789, James Madison proposed amendments to the Constitution to the House of Representatives. Out of the seventeen amendments, ten were accepted by the states. The original Bill of Rights document can be found in the National Archives Museum.
In our article, we included a summary of the Bill of Rights and the historical events that led to its creation. Although the Bill of Rights was penned more than 200 years ago, it still defines individual liberties, the rule of law, and the concept of limited government within American society and the political system.