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.1^1

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.
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?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more, see Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).
  2. For more, see Jack N. Rakove, Declaring Rights: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998).
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