Bill of Rights: 1789-91
When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, people were concerned that it did not protect some basic rights. They thought that the Constitution should be changed to protect these rights. On December 15, 1791, 10 amendments were officially added to the Constitution. These first 10 amendments guarantee certain freedoms and rights; together they are referred to as the Bill of Rights.
Some of the most basic freedoms and rights that we think of today in the United States were included. If you follow national news stories, you can see connections to these rights that were written over 200 years ago. Debates about freedom of speech, gun rights, privacy rights, states’ rights, and many others are directly related to these original rights. Knowing about the Bill of Rights helps in understanding present-day issues.
These are some of the key ideas in those amendments; compare those ideas with the actual text of each amendment:
- First Amendment (Amendment I): freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
- “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.”
- Second Amendment (Amendment II): the right of the people to keep and 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.”
- Third Amendment (Amendment III): restriction of housing soldiers in private homes.
- “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.”
- Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV): protects against 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.”
- Fifth Amendment (Amendment V): protects against self-testimony, being tried twice for the same crime, and the seizure of property under eminent domain.
- “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.”
- Sixth Amendment (Amendment VI): the rights to a speedy trial, trial by jury, and to the services of a lawyer.
- “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.”
- Seventh Amendment (Amendment VII): guarantees trial by jury in cases involving a certain dollar amount.
- “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.”
- Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII): prohibits excessive bail or fines, and cruel and unusual punishment for crimes.
- “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
- Ninth Amendment (Amendment IX): the listing of rights (in the Bill of Rights) does not mean that other rights are not in effect.
- “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
- Tenth Amendment (Amendment X): power not granted to the Federal Government is reserved for states or individual people.
- “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.”
Additional Amendments to the Constitution
Since the original 10 amendments, or the Bill of Rights, 17 additional amendments have been passed. These include:
- Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII), ratified on December 6, 1865, which abolished slavery.
- Fifteenth Amendment (Amendment XV), ratified on February 3, 1870, which states that “the right of the citizens…to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition or servitude.” This amendment gave all men the right to vote, regardless of race, but it would be 50 years until women gained the right to vote, also known as suffrage.
- Nineteenth Amendment (Amendment XIX), ratified on August 8, 1920, which did much the same thing as Amendment XV, but was based on sex, thus giving women the right to vote: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Only one amendment, the Eighteenth Amendment (Amendment XVIII), ratified on January 6, 1919, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” was ever revoked; this was during a period of our nation’s history known as Prohibition when alcoholic consumption became illegal. The Twenty-first Amendment (Amendment XXI), ratified on December 5, 1933, was the amendment that repealed the Eighteenth Amendment (Amendment XVIII).
Bill of Rights Facts and Figures
- There were originally 12 amendments to the Constitution, but the first 2 were never ratified. Amendments 3 through 12 then became the Bill of Rights.
- The structure and content of the Bill of Rights was influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted in 1776 by George Mason.
- The Bill of Rights Day is celebrated on December 15.
- The most recent, Amendment XXVII, was ratified on May 2, 1992. It was originally proposed on September 25, 1789, and was one of the two that was not passed in the original Bill of Rights. Amendment XXVII deals with compensation to members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
To learn more, and to read the full text of the Bill of Rights, see the Bill of Rights site at the National Archives.
To read the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was a model for the Bill of Rights and key phrases in the Declaration of Independence, see the Virginia Declaration of Rights site at the National Archives.