The Bill of Rights is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. To “amend” an existing document means to make additions or other changes to that document in order to make it better. Does this mean that there was something about the original United States Constitution that people thought was in need of improvement? The answer is yes. And that improvement was made by adding the Bill of Rights. This article answers the question of what was missing in the original United States Constitution and therefore why it was amended to include the Bill of Rights.
 
The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. It was created in 1787 and came into effect in 1789. Its original version contained seven articles. These seven articles accomplished three things. Articles 1, 2, and 3 established the “separation of powers” within the federal government between the legislative branch (the United States Congress, consisting of the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives); the executive branch (the Presidency); and the judicial branch (the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts). Articles 4, 5, and 6 established the American system of “federalism” by assigning specific roles to the federal government and to the governments of the states. And Article 7 established the procedure by which the original thirteen states could ratify (formally approve and adopt) the Constitution.

The Constitutional debate

Before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which delegates (representatives) from each of the original thirteen states met in Philadelphia to discuss whether and how the existing Articles of Confederation should be replaced by a new United States Constitution, the question of whether a Bill of Rights should be included was a hotly debated topic.
 
The Federalists – who supported the establishment of a United States Constitution as well as the creation of a strong and unifying national government – believed that an additional Bill of Rights was unnecessary. The Anti-Federalists – who were worried that the creation of a powerful national government would threaten not only the rights of individual states but also the rights of individual citizens – did not believe that the United States should establish a new national Constitution but supported the broader idea of a Bill of Rights.

Toward the end of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates voted on whether or not the new United States Constitution should include a Bill of Rights. Some believed that if the new Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights, then the new national government might exercise tyrannical power over people’s individual liberties. Others suggested that people’s individual liberties were already adequately protected by the constitutions of each individual state. Still others argued that including a very specific and limited set of rights within the actual text of the new Constitution might suggest that any other rights that did not make the list would no longer exist, and that people’s individual liberties would be threated by the national government in those areas. In the end, the delegates decided not to include a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.

The Bill of Rights

During the First United States Congress, which began only months after the United States Constitution came into effect, the issue came up yet again, and discussions took place about the possibility of amending the new Constitution to include a Bill of Rights. The Federalist James Madison – who earlier had argued against including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution – now strongly supported it. Many states had ratified the United States Constitution only reluctantly, and Madison believed that the adoption of a Bill of Rights by the new United States Congress would weaken public support for the Anti-Federalist position that another constitutional convention should take place. There were growing calls for the new Constitution to be re-written in order to weaken the power of the national government. Madison saw the inclusion of a Bill of Rights within the Constitution as a way to save the Constitution itself.

The Bill of Rights was approved by the Congress in 1789 and came into effect in 1791. The articles that were adopted through ratification by three-fourths of the states (as the new Constitution required) became the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. Although the Bill of Rights initially applied only to the federal government, it now largely applies to state and local governments too. The vast majority of the protections guaranteed by the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are now understood by the American judicial system to apply to all governments through the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In keeping with the idea that the United States Constitution should protect people’s individual liberties from government interference, the Bill of Rights does each of the following:

I.  The First Amendment protects people’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom to protest, and the freedom of the press.

II.  The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms.

III.  The Third Amendment prevents the government from making people provide shelter to soldiers within their homes. (This had been a problem during the Revolutionary War.)

IV.  The Fourth Amendment protects people from the unreasonable search and seizure of their property. A warrant issued by a judge based on “probable cause” (a good reason supported by evidence and stated under oath) is required.

V.  The Fifth Amendment protects people from criminal prosecution and punishment without “due process of law” by guaranteeing the right to a fair trial. It also gives people the right not to testify against themselves under oath.

VI.  The Sixth Amendment guarantees that people who have been charged with a crime will receive a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.

VII.  The Seventh Amendment provides for a trial by jury in civil (private) legal disputes. (This right still applies only to the federal government.)

VIII.  The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of excessive bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishment.

IX.  The Ninth Amendment states that the specific rights listed in the Constitution are not the only rights that people have, and that no person’s rights should be used to interfere with the rights of others.

X.  The Tenth Amendment states that powers not specifically assigned to the federal government or specifically denied to the states by the Constitution belong to the states or to the people.

For more information

To learn more about the Bill of Rights, please visit the National Archives’ Bill of Rights section at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights.

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