What is the Bill of Rights?
The United States Bill of Rights contains the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The required number of states completed ratification on December 15, 1791.
The Bill of Rights was crafted (mainly by James Madison) in response to criticism of the newly adopted original constitution, which had replaced the earlier Articles of Confederation. George Washington was the incumbent President, and John Adams was Vice President.
These ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights clarify and enumerate some basic rights and freedoms, human rights, and set out citizens’ civil liberties. The previous lack of these was a major reason for the American Revolution.
In many cases, when Americans reference their “freedoms” or “liberties,” they are referencing a principle laid out in one or more of these ten amendments to the United States Constitution.
You can see an original copy of the Bill of Rights in the National Archives Museum.
Bill of Rights List
Let’s take a look at each of the Bill of Rights amendments:
In the United States, people can criticize the government, say what they like, and practice whatever religion they like. Moreover, the government can not legally favor one religion over another.
Some exceptions to this freedom, such as using “fighting words” to threaten people, are illegal. This may be seen as a public danger.
The Second Amendment protects the right of the people to “keep and bear arms.” This right is taken from older English common law.
Controversy over this amendment today includes whether gun ownership is connected to state militia service and to what degree – if at all – gun control laws are covered in the constitution.
The Third Amendment prevents the government from lodging troops in private residences. This applies only during peacetime – in wartime, specific laws must be enacted to prevent troops’ lodging.
The Third Amendment is a direct response to the Quartering Acts passed by the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, one of the 13 Colonies’ major grievances.
In modern times, this doesn’t seem as relevant as other constitutional amendments.
The Fourth Amendment protects against an unreasonable search and seizure. The police can’t simply enter a home and investigate without “probable cause.” This amendment is often thought to have come from the US Constitution itself.
The Fifth Amendment enumerates certain legal rights, such as the right to be tried before a court and grand jury, the right not to be tried for the same crime twice (“double jeopardy”), and the right to avoid self-incrimination.
It also describes that all citizens must go through “due process of law” before being legally punished. This could include the necessity of an impartial jury when facing a jury trial.
You’ve probably heard someone say they “plead the Fifth” – this refers to a person’s liberty not to be a “witness against himself.”
The famous Miranda warning (“you have the right to remain silent,” etc.) also extends from this right, though it wasn’t established until 1966 after a Supreme Court case (Miranda v. Arizona).
Like the 5th Amendment, the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights also relates to the judicial process. Namely, Amendment VI guarantees the right to a speedy and public court trial, performed in the district where the alleged crime was committed, and for a person to be told what it is they’re being charged with.
It also guarantees the right to a lawyer (“Assistance of Counsel”), even for those who cannot afford one: this is where the idea of “public defenders” comes from.
The Seventh Amendment is about legal suits for a citizen. For example, if someone damaged your property and you wanted compensation – specifically for an amount more than $20 – the Seventh Amendment gives you the right to take this issue before a jury to be settled, and if a specific reimbursement amount is decided upon, enforced.
The Eighth Amendment protects people against prohibitive bail, fines, and “cruel and unusual punishment.” Today, it is most often discussed in relation to the death penalty.
The Ninth Amendment states that there are other universal rights not protected in the Bill of Rights and that they should not be supposed not to exist just because they’re not mentioned.
James Madison pushed for this Amendment to be introduced so that people would not think all rights of US citizens were written in the Bill of Rights.
The Tenth Amendment states that any rights that are not reserved for the central government are reserved to the individual states that make up the Union or “to the people.”
This was an attempt to define the differences between the state government’s power and the federal government’s power and included especially to satisfy anti-federalists.
Discover the full list of Constitutional Amendments – even those not included in the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights.
History of the US Bill of Rights and whether it is part of the constitution.