Passed in 1789 and ratified in 1791, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution make up what is known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments form the essence of what makes American citizenship the privilege that it is.
Many people are familiar with the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press—but these are merely three of the five freedoms found in the First Amendment alone. The Constitution and its 27 amendments offer citizens so much more. The ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights in particular safeguard the unique structure of the United States government and protect individuals from government overreach.
Historical Background of the Bill of Rights
Laws protecting people from government tyranny have existed for hundreds of years. England's Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, protected the king's subjects from abuse of power by the royals. It even included a requirement that actions taken by the government follow certain procedures—an early form of "due process."
The framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to avoid many of the problems experienced under the British monarchy. But at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the delegates unanimously rejected a proposal by Virginia delegate George Mason to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. Some argued that state legislatures had already taken care of protecting the rights of citizens in their state constitutions. Others feared that outlining specific rights would leave the federal government free to infringe on rights that weren't explicitly laid out.
George Mason ultimately refused to add his signature to the original Constitution because there was no bill of rights. After thirteen of the original 55 delegates dropped out, and Mason and two others refused to sign it, the document nonetheless received signatures by the remaining 39 men. But the Constitution's lack of a bill of rights turned out to be the biggest obstacle to getting it ratified by the states.
Why Did the Constitution Need to Be Ratified?
In general, ratification means signing or giving formal consent to something. For example, when an international treaty is created, member countries must sign on for it to become valid. When the Constitution was written, two groups, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, put forth opposing visions of the future of the U.S. government. Federalists supported a strong central government. Anti-Federalists feared that a strong centralized government would be dominated by the upper class, preferring to let the states maintain more control. So, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention addressed this issue in Article VII, the final article of the Constitution.
Article VII required nine of the thirteen original states to ratify the Constitution before it could become law. But this ratification wasn't tasked to the state legislatures. Instead, states were instructed to hold "ratifying conventions" to decide whether to accept or reject the new proposed government. Delegates to the state ratifying conventions were men nominated by their communities.
When ratification efforts began in the states, the fact that the Constitution did not include a bill of rights quickly became a concern among the American public. Many feared that without a formalized protection of personal liberties, they would be subject to the same tyranny they had experienced under the British monarchy. The people wanted a guarantee that the country's new government would not infringe on the fundamental rights they'd just won in the Revolution, such as religious freedom and the freedom from search and seizure without a warrant. Even supporters of the Constitution knew that Anti-Federalist sentiments in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York could pose a problem if they attempted ratification without a bill of rights.
Thomas Jefferson argued in favor of adding a bill of rights, saying:
"A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference."
Several states quickly ratified the Constitution, even without a bill of rights. But in New York and Virginia, ratification efforts only succeeded after the Federalists promised to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. Connecticut, on the other hand, waited 150 years to ratify the official Bill of Rights that eventually resulted, symbolically adopting it in 1939.
Who Wrote the Bill of Rights?
Since he had already written a large portion of the Constitution, it was no surprise that the authorship of the Bill of Rights also fell to James Madison. He based his draft on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by none other than George Mason. Madison originally drafted 19 amendments for the bill. The House of Representatives rejected two, and the Senate threw out an additional five. The First Congress approved the remaining twelve on September 25, 1789, and sent them to the states to be ratified.
The states then turned down two of the amendments approved by Congress. The first of these, which was eventually added back in 1992 as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, prevented Congress from making changes to their own pay during a legislative session. Essentially, no one wanted members of Congress to increase their pay right before getting voted out of office. The second addressed how many representatives should be in Congress based on the country's population in 1789.
The final 10 amendments became the Bill of Rights that we have today. Congress commissioned 14 official copies of the document—one for each of the thirteen states, and one for the federal government. Four state copies have gone missing (Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania). Historians recovered two of these copies, but no one knows from which state they originated. The copy given to the federal government is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., along with the original handwritten versions of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
What Freedoms Are Addressed in the Bill of Rights?
The bill of rights addresses five essential freedoms:
- Freedom of religion
- Freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly
- Due Process
- Equality under the law (also known as Equal Protection)
Due Process and Equal Protection were addressed again in 1866 with the passage of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.
The Text of the Bill of Rights
Below are the ten amendments included in the Bill of Rights, as written by James Madison and approved by the First Federal Congress. In the centuries since their passage, these amendments have been interpreted and re-interpreted both by Congress and the Supreme Court.
First Amendment - Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press
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.
Learn more about the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Second Amendment - The Right to Bear Arms
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Learn more about the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Third Amendment - Quartering Soldiers
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Learn more about why the Third Amendment was included in the bill of rights.
Fourth Amendment - Unreasonable Search and Seizure
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Learn more about protections provided by the Fourth Amendment.
Fifth Amendment - Rights of Persons
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Learn more about "pleading the Fifth," double jeopardy, and other rights under the Fifth Amendment.
Sixth Amendment - Rights of the Accused
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence [sic].
Learn more about rights for those accused of a crime under the Sixth Amendment.
Seventh Amendment - Civil Trials
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Learn more about civil trials under the Seventh Amendment.
Eighth Amendment - Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Learn more about the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Ninth Amendment - Other Rights
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Learn more about how the Ninth Amendment leaves the door open for the protection of other rights.
Tenth Amendment - Powers Reserved to the States
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Learn more about powers reserved for state governments by the Tenth Amendment.