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The Bill of Rights: lesson overview

A high-level overview of how the Constitution protects civil liberties.  
When ratifying the Constitution, Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed about how individual liberties and rights are protected in the Constitution. The two groups eventually agreed to ratify the Constitution and add the Bill of Rights, a series of ten amendments that explicitly protects individual liberties and rights.

Key terms

Bill of RightsTen amendments added to the Constitution to protect individual liberties and rights from government interference
civil libertiesThe rights of citizens to be free from undue government interference in their lives, including those rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and those established by long legal precedent (such as the right to marry or travel freely)
civil rightsThe rights of citizens to be free of unequal or discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, gender, or membership in a particular demographic group
individual libertiesConstitutionally-established rights and freedoms protected by law from interference by the government

Rights and liberties protected in the Bill of Rights

AmendmentRights/liberties protected
First amendmentFreedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and to petition
Second amendmentRight to keep and bear arms
Third amendmentRight to not quarter (or house) soldiers during time of war
Fourth amendmentRight to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure
Fifth amendmentRights in criminal cases, including due process and protection from self-incrimination; no person can be tried for a serious crime without the indictment of a grand jury
Sixth amendmentRight to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, to an attorney, and to confront witnesses
Seventh amendmentRight to a trial by jury in civil cases
Eighth amendmentRight to not face excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment
Ninth amendmentThere are other rights besides the ones listed in the Bill of Rights and the federal government cannot violate those rights
Tenth amendmentAll powers not given to the national government or prohibited to the states are reserved to states or to the people

Key takeaways

The Bill of Rights protects individual liberties and rights: The Supreme Court is responsible for hearing cases and interpreting the application of the provisions in the Bill of Rights.
Since 1897, the Supreme Court has heard cases on potential state infringement of individual liberties and rights. The Court has found that the Bill of Rights must be upheld, even in states whose constitutions and laws do not protect fundamental liberties as fully as the Bill of Rights.
Requiring states to uphold the Bill of Rights is made possible through selective incorporation. Selective incorporation is the process by which the Constitution effectively inserts parts of the Bill of Rights into state laws and constitutions. In this way, selective incorporation is an implicit, not explicit, process. The Supreme Court decides whether state laws are unconstitutional because they violate the Bill of Rights.

Review questions

What is an underlying principle to the Bill of Rights?
What are two provisions in the Bill of Rights that limit the powers of the national government?

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