Bill of Rights

When the nation was newly formed, and the Constitution penned, the opinion of the people was divided somewhat. Most people praised the Constitution as a binding document that laid out the rules and limitations of the new government. Others, however, felt it gave too much power to the federal government, and that it could possibly swallow up the individual states.

When the newly created Congress met for the first time, they addressed these concerns, creating amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing certain rights to the people. The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the “Bill of Rights.” To explore this concept, consider the following Bill of Rights definition.

Definition of Bill of Rights


  1. A formal statement of the fundamental rights of the people.
  2. The first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution


1791    U.S. Constitution

What is the Bill of Rights

“The Bill of Rights” is the name used to refer to the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Each of the 10 amendments guarantees some essential right that should be afforded to all people, or places specific limitations on the powers of the federal government. After the Constitution was drafted, it had to be approved by representatives of each state before it could be put into effect.

Supporters of the Constitution, known as “Federalists,” began lobbying for its approval, going to great lengths to explain the benefits of the document. These people included such founding fathers as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, among others. Several of these men wrote a series of articles for a newspaper called “The Federalist.” The articles explained how the Constitution would work, and how it would be beneficial to the people. They even addressed questions about, and criticisms of, the Constitution in an understandable manner.

Other people were opposed to the Constitution, fearing that it gave too much power to a centralized government, which could overpower and suppress the individual states. These people, known as “Antifederalists,” worried that having a president and congress with long terms could result in the creation of an aristocratic class that controlled the nation. Having fled a country controlled by a monarchy, this was a serious concern for all of the colonists. Specifically, the Antifederalists, including such people as Sam Adams, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and George Clinton, felt the document lacked a “bill of rights,” listing specific freedoms or rights that cannot be taken away by the government.

Who Wrote the Bill of Rights

Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, congressional Representative James Madison, a Federalist, proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution, 39 in all, designed to address the concerns of the Antifederalists. Madison proposed the inserting of language guaranteeing certain specific rights, and limiting the power of the federal government, into the Constitution. While the members of Congress rejected that idea, they were open to adding such rights in a supplemental document.

Discussions took only a few months, and on September 25, 1789, Congress approved 12 amendments to the Constitution. The amendments were then submitted to the states for ratification, just as the original Constitution had been. Nine of those amendments were ratified and became Amendments One through Ten of the Constitution on December 15, 1791. Another of those amendments, one that kept Congress from making any increase to their own salaries, specifying that any such change could not go into effect until the start of the next term, was not ratified until May 7, 1992 – two hundred years later.

Bill of Rights Summary

Although the Bill of Rights was held to be highly important to protect the civil liberties of the people, the people themselves remained largely unaffected by, or unaware of, those rights for nearly 150 years after the amendments’ ratification. Each of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution spells out specific rights of the people, or limitations of the government’s power.

First Amendment

“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.”

The First Amendment protects five of the people’s most basic rights:

  1. Freedom of Religion
  2. Freedom of Speech
  3. Freedom of the Press
  4. Freedom of Assembly
  5. Freedom to Petition the Government

Second Amendment – 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.”

The Second Amendment makes clear that a “well-regulated militia” is necessary to securing a state of freedom from government oppression, and protects the people’s right to keep and bear arms. In modern times, this has become a subject hotly debated as to whether this is a blanket guarantee, or whether there exist circumstances in which some people should not be allowed to own or handle firearms.

Third Amendment – Quartering of 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.”

The Third Amendment restricted the quartering, or housing, of soldiers in the homes of private citizens. While this may have been an issue in colonial times, it seems to have little relevance in modern America. Still, it implies that every individual has a right to privacy, and protection against government intrusion into their homes.

Fourth Amendment – 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.”

The Fourth Amendment protects people from improper searches of their bodies, their homes, and their possessions. It requires that a detailed search warrant be issued by a judge only when the police can show good cause for the search.

For example:

The police suspect that a student at Emily’s high school is selling drugs. They cannot search the homes of every student looking for clues. In fact, even if they strongly suspect only one or two specific students, they cannot search their homes or their belongings without a court order. In this example of Bill of Rights protection, the police would need to bring evidence that supports their suspicion in order to obtain a search warrant for certain specific students, certain specific areas to be searched, and specific things to be searched for.

Fifth Amendment – Rights of the Accused, Due Process of Law, and 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.”

The Fifth Amendment protects the rights of a person suspected of, or charged with, a crime, guaranteeing due process of law. It protects against double jeopardy, which is to try a person more than once for the same crime. It also guarantees that any person accused of a crime is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. This amendment also prohibits the forcing of someone to testify against himself. This goes on to require that law enforcement officials provide evidence sufficient to convict the individual, as the accused cannot be made to provide it.

The final section addresses what is known as “eminent domain.” It specifies that the government cannot take a person’s property for public use, without just compensation. Today it is not uncommon for a municipality (a city, county, state, or other government entity) to take land for the purpose of building something that is needed for the common good of the people. However, the Fifth Amendment requires that those people be compensated a fair amount for their property.

Sixth Amendment – Fair and Speedy Trial

“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.”

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that anyone accused of a crime gets a fair and speedy trial, in public, before an impartial jury. It specifies that every defendant has a right to face his accusers, to question witnesses, and to testify if he desires. It also specifies that any person accused of a crime has a right to a lawyer. In short, the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant’s right to:

  • To be informed of each criminal charge
  • To be represented by an attorney
  • A speedy, public trial
  • A trial by impartial jury, in the area where the crime was committed
  • To face his accusers, and to question them
  • To compel witnesses to appear and testify in court

Seventh Amendment – Jury Trials in Civil Lawsuits

“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 reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

The Seventh Amendment guarantees a person’s right to a jury trial, even in a civil lawsuit. This right applies only to federal courts, however. In state court, which is the venue for the fast majority of civil lawsuits, a jury trial is not guaranteed. In fact, the laws of many states allow a jury trial if the amount of damages sought is above a certain specified amount. This addresses the issue of litigants suing for small amounts tying up the court system, and a jury, for days or weeks at a time.

For example:

Sonja purchased a gold chain at a local jewelry store, paying $129 plus tax. About a week after she started wearing the chain, she noticed it tarnishing and turning the skin of her neck a weird color. She took the chain back to the store and demanded they make it right. She was angry, however, and demanded the full amount she had paid for the chain, plus an additional amount so that she could replace the chain with a new one. The store management refused, but offered to give her full store credit.

Sonja stormed out of the store and promptly filed a civil lawsuit, asking for the $129 plus tax, $120 for the replacement chain she purchased elsewhere, and $1,000 pain and suffering. Not only was Sonja asking for more than the value of the item, but she demanded a jury trial.

The Seventh Amendment states that any matter in which the value of the item in dispute exceeds $20 is subject to the right of trial by jury. Sonja’s lawsuit is filed in the state court, however, which does not provide an option for jury trial for matters whose value is under $10,000. In this example of Bill of Rights protections, no matter how angry Sonja is, her lawsuit will be heard by a judge at a bench trial.

Eighth Amendment – Bail, Fines, and Punishments

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The Eighth Amendment protects people from unreasonably high bail to get out of jail before trial. This is dependent on the circumstances, however, such as the violent nature of the crime, and whether or not the individual is likely to flee. It also prohibits unreasonably high fines, and outlaws cruel and unusual punishment in sentencing.

Ninth Amendment – Non-Enumerated Rights of the People

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Ninth Amendment acknowledges that neither the Constitution or the Bill of Rights covers every fundamental right a person holds.

Tenth Amendment – Reserved Powers

“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.”

The Tenth Amendment emphasizes the belief that the federal government holds only those powers and responsibilities specifically discussed in the Constitution, and that all others are reserved to the individual states, and to the people. This amendment does not give new powers to the states, but specifically safeguards their authority over all matters that are not specifically granted to the federal government.

Bill of Rights Example of Abuse

The freedoms and rights granted by the Bill of Rights are intended to ensure all people have access to due process, and to the court system. Unfortunately, in recent decades, these privileges have been greatly abused, with people bringing silly and frivolous matters to be decided by the courts, or worse – by a jury.

Such lawsuits have the effect of quashing the liberties of others. For instance, in 2004, a man enjoying the public swimming pool with his family jumped into the pool and cut his heel quite severely. The area from which the man had jumped was clearly marked on the cement under his feet that no jumping was allowed, and he had also been warned by the lifeguard not to jump from that spot. The man disregarded these safety warnings and paid the price.

The man filed a civil lawsuit against the public pool asking for $100,000 as payment of his medical bills, lost work, and pain and suffering, citing that doctors did not know how long it would take for the wounds to heal, nor how long it might be before the man would be able to stand all day, as required by his job. The man settled with the pool’s owner, but fear of “copycat” lawsuits led to the pool’s closure.

Frivolous use of the nation’s court systems often has the effect of infringing on the rights and liberties of others. In this example of Bill of Rights abuse, children and families of the depressed neighborhood lost their place for safe recreation because one man thought the rules did not apply to him, and that he was entitled to some type of compensation for his own stupidity.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Double Jeopardy – The Fifth Amendment protection from being tried for the same crime twice, and from being compelled to testify against oneself.
  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Search Warrant – A court order that authorizes law enforcement officers or agents to search a person or a place for the purpose of obtaining evidence or contraband for use in criminal prosecution.