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The US Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, all of which were ratified by the requisite number of states on December 15, 1791.
It was crafted in response to criticism of the newly adopted (1789) Constitution which had supplanted the earlier Articles of Confederation.
These ten Amendments codify some clear liberties that the American Revolution was fought for – in many cases, when Americans reference their “freedoms” or “liberties,” they are referencing a principle that is laid out in one or more of these ten amendments.
Let’s take a look at each one:
The First Amendment allows for freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, and the right of people to protest the government peacefully. In the United States, people can criticize the government, say what they like (to an extent – using “fighting words” to threaten people is illegal), and may practice whatever religion they like. The government also can not legally favor one religion over the other.
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 the question of whether or not gun ownership is connected to state militia service, and to what degree – if at all – gun control laws are constitutional.
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 the lodging of troops.
The Third Amendment can be thought of as a direct response to the Quartering Acts passed by the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, one of the major grievances of the Thirteen Colonies.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unwarranted searches and seizures. It’s due to the Fourth Amendment that police can’t simply enter a home and conduct an investigation without “probable cause.”
The Fifth Amendment enumerates certain legal rights, such as the right to be tried before a grand jury, the right to not 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.
You’ve probably heard someone say they “plead the Fifth” – this refers to the right of a person not to be a “witness against himself” as written here. 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 Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment also relates to the judicial process. Namely, it guarantees the right to a speedy and public 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 example, if someone damaged your property and you wanted reimbursement – 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 ridiculously expensive bail, fines, as well as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Today, it is most often brought up in reference 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 to not 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 power of state governments and the power of the federal government and included especially to satisfy anti-federalists.