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The Bill of Rights

AP.USH:
KC‑3.2.II.E (KC)
,
PCE (Theme)
,
Unit 3: Learning Objective I
The first ten amendments to the US Constitution guarantee citizens' essential freedoms and rights. 

Overview

  • The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.
  • The Bill of Rights consists of guarantees of civil liberties and checks on state power; it was added in order to convince states to ratify the Constitution.

The Constitutional Convention

By the time the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, it had become clear to many American leaders that a more powerful federal government was necessary in order to effectively deal with the challenges facing the young nation.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government had neither the power to raise taxes nor the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Additionally, there was no established mechanism through which states could adjudicate conflicts. Many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention understood that the Articles of Confederation would need to be supplanted entirely, not merely revised.
To this end, the delegates spent months debating and shaping the scope and contours of a new and more powerful federal government.start superscript, 1, end superscript

Ratifying the Constitution

The result of the Constitutional Convention was the United States Constitution. The Constitution created a federal government consisting of three separate branches in order to impose checks and balances on the powers of each branch.
  • The executive branch would be headed by a president, who would be elected.
  • The legislative branch would be composed of an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house—the House of Representatives. Representation in the House would be based on population—including counting enslaved men and women at the proportion of three to five for the purposes of representation and taxation. Each state would elect two representatives to the Senate.
  • The judicial branch would consist of a Supreme Court and lower courts to interpret and apply the law.
Not everyone believed the new Constitution was a good idea. A number of individuals who had played important roles in the Revolution, like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, worried that a powerful federal government would inevitably become tyrannical and that the new Constitution would be merely replacing British tyranny with a homegrown variety. They worried that the president would usurp king-like powers and encroach upon the individual rights and freedoms of citizens.
In order for the Constitution to enter into force, it would have to be ratified by at least nine states, but several states threatened to refuse to ratify the document unless it included strong guarantees of individual rights and liberties. To this end, the delegates, led by Virginian James Madison set to work on drafting a list of checks on federal power that would ensure the full exercise of individual liberty.
Portrait of James Madison
Gilbert Stuart, portrait of James Madison, c. 1821. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights consists of 10 amendments that explicitly guarantee certain rights and protections to US citizens by limiting the power of the federal government.
  • The First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with the freedoms of speech, peaceable assembly, and exercise of religion.
  • The Second Amendment declares that properly constituted militias are a safeguard of liberty and that the right to bear arms will be protected.
  • The Third Amendment restricts the quartering of soldiers in private homes—an extremely contentious issue that had led the colonists to war with Great Britain.
  • The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures of private property.
  • The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments establish a variety of guarantees relating to legal proceedings and criminal justice, including the right to a trial by jury; protection against self-incrimination and double jeopardy, being tried twice for the same offense; the right to due process; prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; and the right to face one’s accuser, obtain legal counsel, and be informed of all criminal charges.
  • The Ninth Amendment acknowledges that the other eight amendments are not an exhaustive list of all of the rights and protections to which citizens are guaranteed, and the Tenth Amendment declares that any powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are to be left to the states. This reinforced the principle of federalism, or separation of powers, by ensuring that the federal government could not usurp rights and powers that were not explicitly authorized in the Constitution.
First draft of the Bill of Rights
First draft of the Bill of Rights, as proposed in 1789. Image credit: National Archives
The Bill of Rights has proven to be one of the most influential documents in contemporary history, codifying the theory of natural rights, which holds that humans are granted certain freedoms and liberties by God, and that the state should not have the power to usurp or otherwise infringe upon those rights. This was a major departure from previous theories of individual rights, which were granted to citizens by the state or monarch. The Bill of Rights has influenced countless political leaders around the globe since their authorization into force in the United States.

What do you think?

Why did the delegates to the Constitutional Convention find it necessary to draft the Bill of Rights?
Do you think there are certain amendments in the Bill of Rights that are more important than others for the effective functioning of a democracy?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Vesti Sterlingov
    If the first amendment states that:
    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
    Are there ANY symbols actually banned?
    (Also, which symbols do they ban in Europe on the terms of THEIR laws?)
    (27 votes)
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    • starky sapling style avatar for user BeanTheGiant
      In answer to you second question...
      In 2005, The EU tried to prohibit Communist symbols, in addition to the Nazi symbols that were already prohibited (Austria, France and Germany all ban Nazi symbols.). The ban of communist symbols over all of the EU was rejected, but the individual nations are able to make their own laws respecting those symbols. Hope this is helpful!
      (2 votes)
  • primosaur seedling style avatar for user alehowlin2021
    Do any small bits and pieces of the original Articles of Confederation still exist in American gov't today?
    (10 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jude
      Very little, I think. There wasn't much to the articles of confederation anyway, since everyone wanted a small government, and what little they had was thrown away because it wasn't working.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Andrea Brinson
    Why were the authors of the Federalist Papers (nationalists) against the Bill of Rights?
    (3 votes)
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    • purple pi teal style avatar for user Ellen Wight
      Not all of the authors were against the Bill of Rights - the document was something the antifederalists wanted as a way to secure freedoms and it was the only way to make them willing to sign the Constitution. Madison was actually one of the presenters of the Bill of Rights and played a large part in its creation because he believed it was necessary. Then again, he later broke away from the Federalists to found the Democratic-Republican party with Jefferson. The authors who opposed the Bill of Rights were John Jay and Hamilton - they believed in loose interpretation of government. Hamilton specifically thought a Bill of Rights wasn't only unnecessary, but it would be dangerous because of how strict everything would need to be - if something isn't written out as unlawful, the government can do it with no consequences, so everything would eventually have to be micromanaged, the exact opposite of the flexible Constitution that federalists wanted.
      (11 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user daley.gto
    During the current COVID-19 lock down, do home "quarantine" orders by states contradict the Bill of Rights (perhaps the 1st Ammendment)?
    (3 votes)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      No, the government is given certain leeway to put in place certain restrictions on a population during times of national, or even local, emergencies. These restrictions usually are narrow in scope and time. A quarantine is one such example. Others are curfews put in place after a natural disaster or shopping restrictions put in place in a time of war (rationing during WWII).
      (6 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Peyton Knott
    Shouldn't soldiers be able to use homes as bases?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user famousguy786
    Why do we have 10 separate amendments in the Bill of Rights even though all of them are very short in terms of text? Why did they not pass one single amendment? It would have resulted in 9 fewer ratification votes and would have made the passage of the Bill of Rights much faster and easier.
    (3 votes)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      There were even more than 10 amendments proposed. If you look at an original copy of the Bill of Rights, the current 1st amendment is listed 3rd. The first proposed article is still awaiting state ratification and the second listed article became the 27th amendment in 1992.

      Had everything been combined into one single amendment, then it would likely have never passed votes in congress or state ratification, and we wouldn't have any of the existing protections the individual existing amendments give us today.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user npisarczyk0809
    Since John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut all wrote the declaration of independence and it is almost as long as the bill of rights how come James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights on his own? Or does this mean he is not the only one that wrote it?
    Also, what does it mean that some of the states lost their official copy of the Bill of Rights.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user MOHAMMADH
    Which statement would be MOST important to include in a summary of the article?
    (2 votes)
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  • primosaur seed style avatar for user Gresham Smith
    I think it is an oversight that they when discussing the various branches, term the election of senators as "each state would elect". Originally it was the state Legislature that elected the senators but this was changed by the 17th Amendment. Do you think the 17th Amendment was in keeping with the Founding Father's ideology or was it contrary to the premise of the American form of government? Whichever side you land on, I would love to hear why you think yea or nay.
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user burrito77
      I think that the founders were well aware that things would not remain the same forever, and so wrote the Constitution to reflect this. This is why for example, terms like "cruel and unusual punishment" are left undefined. This is also why they've made a way for amendments to be added to the Constitution. Therefore I think that while the 17th would essentially be contrary to the Founding Father's ideology, if it wasn't for their wisdom in allowing changes to occur to the Constitution, it's unlikely that we would still be here today under this same Constitution. I would also say that the Founders themselves passed the first 2 true amendments to the Constitution, and that this question could also be asked about the 12th amendment.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Shatvika
    What exactly is the 3/5 rule for slaves? How does it work?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Hypernova Solaris
      The 3/5ths Compromise was a compromise the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 with those delegates from Southern states, who wanted more representation in government and wanted to count slaves as people in order to gain this representation. However, the northern delegates did not like this idea since slaves, obviously, could not vote and this representation idea would make it a bit unfair. The 3/5ths clause is actually directly mentioned in Article I of the Constitution (though it no longer applies today) stating that "5 other persons" (many of the framers were ashamed of slavery, and did not make direct mention of it in the Constitution) would count as three white people in representation. Hope this helps!
      (5 votes)