The Bill of Rights
By: U.S. Congress
Source: Bill of Rights. 1789. Available online from the National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html (accessed on June 23, 2014).
About the Author: The U.S. Congress is the legislative body of the United States federal government. Its origins can be traced to 1789, when the passing of the Constitution by the Second Continental Congress established the U.S. Congress as a bicameral system of legislation. This meant that Congress would be composed of two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, each with its own powers. In most cases, legislation would need approval by both houses before going on to the president to be signed into law.
The American Revolution (1775–1783) officially ended with a peace treaty between Great Britain and the newly established United States of America. Now free of foreign rule, the United States was able to devise its own method of self-governance. From 1781 the country operated under the Articles of Confederation. However, by the late 1780s, legislators felt that this set of laws granted too much power to individual states and not enough to the centralized federal government. Therefore, viewing the Articles as flawed and weak, the Constitutional Congress, a legislative body composed of delegates from each state, met in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 for what became known as the Constitutional Convention. At this convention, they drafted the laws for an entirely new system of government.
In September of 1787, the Constitutional Congress finished the Constitution of the United States. This Page 236 | Top of Articledocument, most importantly, established the country's status as a constitutional republic with three branches of government: a legislative branch, composed of the bicameral U.S. Congress; an executive branch, composed of the office of the president; and a judicial branch, made up of multiple federal courts headed by the Supreme Court. The three branches were created specifically so that the federal government would operate on a system of checks and balances, meaning that each branch could limit the authority of the others so no one branch would become too powerful.
The framers of the Constitution crafted their federal government this way because they remembered the years of oppressive British tyranny that forced them into submission and controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. The American states refused to risk ever again being dominated by an overbearing, absolutist form of government. Yet it was with these same thoughts in mind that a political group known as the Anti-Federalists considered the Constitution incomplete. The Anti-Federalists claimed that as long as the Constitution lacked a bill of rights, a list of personal freedoms guaranteed protection by the government, the civil liberties of all Americans would be in perpetual danger of governmental abuse. Though some states were indifferent toward the issue and ratified the Constitution immediately in 1787, others were more wary of a strong central government and refused to ratify the document until a bill of rights was added.
Therefore, in 1789 Virginia congressman James Madison (1751–1836) drafted a set of twelve amendments to the Constitution, ten of which were later ratified as the Bill of Rights. Most important was the First Amendment, which guaranteed the U.S. government's protection of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to assembly, and the right to petition the government for change. The bill also promised Americans the right to bear arms, the right to be protected from unreasonable searches of their homes and property, and the right to a fair trial in a court of law if accused of a crime. In relation to this due process, the Bill of Rights also guaranteed that Americans would never have to pay unreasonably high fines or prison bails and could never be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments,” as the document read, if imprisoned. Finally, the Bill of Rights granted to the individual states any rights or powers not bestowed on the federal government by the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights was well received by the states that had not yet approved the Constitution, and these first ten amendments were ratified unanimously and passed on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights helped quell many concerns that the new nation would eventually slip back into the tyrannical rule American citizens experienced under British authority.
The Bill of Rights is one of the preeminent documents in American history and a fundamental statement of the basic civil rights of American citizens. However, most revealing of the amendments' later significance was the debate that took place among legislators in the 1780s to include the bill in the Constitution. To them, the decision to explicitly state the freedoms guaranteed to every American was not an easy one to make.
When the idea of adding a bill of rights to the Constitution was initially proposed by Constitutional Convention delegates Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) and George Mason (1725–1792) in 1787, it was opposed almost unanimously by the rest of the legislature. Though Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) agreed in principle to such a declaration of rights, they also felt that a bill included in the official constitution of a government would serve no purpose, as it could ultimately not prevent those willing to engage in government corruption and abuse from doing so. James Madison, the primary author of the Bill of Rights, initially referred to the proposed document as a parchment barrier, a protection of rights by words only.
Furthermore, a bill of rights was heavily opposed by the Federalists, who presented several reasons for their resistance. The first was that adding a bill of rights to the Constitution would imply that without one, the government would at any time be inclined to infringe upon the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people. This, the Federalists argued, would essentially negate the principles for which the American Revolution had been fought.
The Federalists' second reason was that the finite nature of a bill of rights could not possibly declare every right and liberty possessed by American citizens and that this, in turn, would in time lead to loopholes justifying government evils. Finally, the Federalists reasoned that to include a bill of human rights in a document of law implied that Americans derived their
liberty not from nature but from the government. The American Revolution, Federalists said, had guaranteed the people their rights, but the Constitution would be an inappropriate venue in which to list them.
However, by the meeting of the First U.S. Congress in the spring of 1789, Madison had changed his opinion on the issue, telling Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the future third president, that he supported a bill of rights only if it could avoid falling into the potential traps set forth by the Federalists. The document, he believed, should not diminish the work of the Constitutional Convention but build upon it. Madison then set about composing Page 238 | Top of Articlethe Bill of Rights as they later appeared, though he took special precautions to ensure their approval by Congress.
The first of these was to place the bill's amendments into the actual Constitution rather than create a separate addendum for them. This was done to completely integrate the Bill of Rights into American law. Madison's second precaution was not to refer to his document as a bill of rights but rather as a set of twelve individual Constitutional amendments. Had Congress considered the amendments together as one bill, it would have been easier to vote them all down at once.
The U.S. Congress ratified ten of the twelve proposed amendments, and the Bill of Rights was officially made law in December of 1791. Of his accomplishment, Madison stated that indeed, civil liberties were not granted but protected by the government, and that it was the American people themselves in whom power was vested to safeguard their own rights. The Bill of Rights, he believed, would serve as a perpetual educator and reminder of these freedoms to all future generations of Americans.
THE BILL OF RIGHTS
SYNOPSIS: The following is the text of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, which was approved by Congress as ten separate amendments.
Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on
Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven
hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.
ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Page 239 | Top of Articlewitnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
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.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the 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.
Conley, Patrick T., and John P. Kaminski. The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties. Madison House: Madison, WI, 1992.
Levy, Leonard. The Origins of the Bill of Rights. Yale Contemporary Law Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
Rutland, Robert. The Ordeal of the Constitution: The Anti-federalists and the Ratification Struggle of 1787–1788. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1983.
“Bill of Rights.” National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html (accessed on June 23, 2014).
“The Constitution.” The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/our-government/the-constitution (accessed on June 23, 2014).
“Introduction to the Bill of Rights. Teaching American History. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/bor/bor-intro/ (accessed on June 23, 2014).