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The Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution guarantee citizens' essential freedoms and rights. 


  • 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.1

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.
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, 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?)
    (29 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!
      (39 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?
    (11 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Kiovo
    What were the arguments against the bill of rights? Hamilton argues that it is unnecessary in federalist No. 84, but weren't the federalist papers written by both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison? Was there any conflict between the two over the bill of rights?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      In Federalist No. 84, Alexander Hamilton argued against the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution, primarily on the grounds that it was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Hamilton believed that listing specific rights might imply that those not explicitly mentioned were not protected, thereby potentially limiting rights. He also argued that state constitutions already included bills of rights and that the Constitution itself was a bill of rights, designed to protect the rights of citizens from governmental overreach. James Madison, who later played a pivotal role in drafting the Bill of Rights, initially shared some of Hamilton's views but came to recognize the political necessity of adding explicit protections to secure ratification. While there was disagreement between Hamilton and Madison on this issue, it was a matter of strategy and emphasis rather than a fundamental conflict over the importance of protecting individual liberties.
      (1 vote)
  • 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.
      (12 votes)
  • 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.
    (4 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.
      (8 votes)
  • sneak peak purple style avatar for user Willa Steilen
    Which factor made the strongest contribution to the development of religious freedom in the United States?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      One might cite several factors:
      1) The religious diversity of the settler/colonists.
      2) The human perversity that led to divisions in the religious groups among those settler/colonists.
      3) The linguistic diversity that kept people worshipping in languages (Dutch, German, French, English) without being part of the same ecclesiastical connection.
      4) Irreligion among framers of the constitution who wanted to protect the infant republic from the abuses of state-religion in Europe.
      5) Scottish Enlightenment philosophy.
      6) Money from rich donors

      Take your pick.
      (7 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).
      (8 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user gracy_4
    Were there any prominent court cases in Britain that might have shaped or impacted the way the 5-8 Amendments were laid out?
    (5 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Rod Redline
      Well, the Bill of Rights is based on an English Bill of Rights, signed by Mary, Queen of Scots. It lessened the power of the British monarchy and granted more rights to every Englishman. I believe that it was this document --- as well as the Magna Carta --- that most influenced the Bill of Rights.

      There are no court cases that I know of, but there are documents!

      Hope this helps! ~Rod
      (2 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Peyton Knott
    Shouldn't soldiers be able to use homes as bases?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gabrielnasser09
    what is America guys?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      America is a physical location on a map.
      "America" is shorthand for the name of a nation, which would more properly be called "The United States of America".
      America is an idea of a type of social organization that might be better than the United States of America actually is.
      America is a symbol. For some, it symbolizes good, for others it symbolizes evil.
      America is a work in progress, which gets better AND worse as time passes.
      (8 votes)