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What is the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights, comprising the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, enshrines fundamental liberties like freedom of speech, religion, and the press, while also protecting against unwarranted searches and ensuring fair legal proceedings. These rights are the bedrock of American democracy. How do they impact your life today? Explore their enduring significance with us.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The first ten amendments of the United States constitution are more commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they set out specific rights of American citizens in order to ensure that those rights are not infringed. It is modeled on many other similar documents, all of which owe their inception to the Magna Carta, which was written in England in 1215 CE. The Bill of Rights is considered to be an important part of the Constitution, and it is also an integral part of popular culture; most Americans, for example, know what someone means when he or she “pleads the fifth,” a reference to the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from self recrimination.

The Bill of Rights probably would not have existed at all were it not for the actions of the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists were strongly opposed to the Constitution, as they feared that the president could quickly become a king ruling over a disenfranchised people. Although the Constitution sets out a framework for American government, it does not provide any specific rights to citizens. While the definition of “citizen” in the 1700s only included white, property-owning men, the efforts undertaken by these men to protect themselves later helped women and people of color in their work to achieve equality.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.

When it became clear that the Constitution was going to be ratified despite the efforts of the Anti-Federalists, the men secured an agreement that a list of amendments would be attached to the Constitution and sent out for ratification. James Madison sat down to draft 12 amendments and, after cutting the first two, the Bill of Rights as it is now known was ratified.

The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.

This document sets many important precedents for American citizens, giving them the right to free speech and religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government. It also sets out the rules for due process of law to ensure that citizens are not tried for the same crime twice, punished unreasonably for crimes, or forced to incriminate themselves. In addition, it protected citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and restricted military takeover of private homes, a serious issue during the Revolution. The document also specified that civilian and military justice would use different codes and that powers not delegated to the federal government belonged to the states or the people.

The White House, home of the president of the United States.
The White House, home of the president of the United States.

As with any legal document, the Bill of Rights is subject to interpretation, as can be seen in the ongoing dispute over the content of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court of the United States is charged with interpreting and defending the Constitution, and the Congress does occasionally add amendments to the Constitution as it deems necessary. As of 2007, the most recent amendment was the 27th, “Compensation of Member of Congress.” In order for an amendment to pass, two-thirds of both houses must agree to it, or three-quarters of the states must ratify a proposed amendment as a group.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Bill of Rights in the United States?

The first ten amendments of the US Constitution are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they enumerate specific rights that are held by American citizens.
The first ten amendments of the US Constitution are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they enumerate specific rights that are held by American citizens.

The Bill of Rights is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments were ratified on December 15, 1791, and they guarantee essential rights and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights was introduced by James Madison to address concerns raised during the ratification of the Constitution about the lack of protection of individual liberties.

Why was the Bill of Rights created?

The Bill of Rights was created to protect individuals from government abuse and to ensure that certain fundamental rights would not be infringed upon by the federal government. It was a response to calls from several states for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties. The framers believed that listing specific rights would provide a clear limitation on government power and would safeguard the rights of citizens.

Which rights are included in the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights includes a range of rights such as freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition (1st Amendment), the right to keep and bear arms (2nd Amendment), protection from quartering of troops (3rd Amendment), protection from unreasonable searches and seizures (4th Amendment), rights related to criminal prosecutions including due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, and eminent domain (5th Amendment), the right to a fair trial (6th Amendment), the right to a trial by jury in civil cases (7th Amendment), protection against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment), and the statement that the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution does not mean that others do not exist (9th Amendment). The 10th Amendment states that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.

How has the interpretation of the Bill of Rights changed over time?

The interpretation of the Bill of Rights has evolved significantly over time through judicial review by the Supreme Court. Landmark cases like Miranda v. Arizona (1966) have expanded the rights of the accused, while others like Gitlow v. New York (1925) have incorporated the Bill of Rights to apply to state governments as well, not just the federal government. This process of interpretation and application is known as the doctrine of incorporation.

Can the Bill of Rights be amended?

Yes, the Bill of Rights can be amended, but the process is intentionally difficult to ensure stability and continuity in the nation's fundamental laws. An amendment must be proposed either by a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of state legislatures. It must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or state conventions. This rigorous process underscores the importance and enduring nature of these amendments.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon938040

I wish we had this protection in the UK, where government trods on the people on a whim.

anon301975

Sorry, A.D. not C.E. Why do you think the "Common Era" started right around the time Jesus was born? We have been measuring time according to the birth of Christ for a long time, Why switch to what people call the "Common Era"? People don't like the idea of God, that's why. Someday you will meet your Creator.

anon144717

Thank you! This helped a lot. I learned more from this than from my actual class.

anon142627

I really liked studying the bill of rights in school this year. this article helped me a lot with this topic.

anon127646

i understand the bill of rights now that i have read this article!

anon69660

The bill of rights is amazing.

geekgirl

oh i see. that makes sense. Thanks.

rjohnson

The Bill of Rights applies directly to the federal government only. Most of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights apply to the state and local governments as well, but only through the incorporation of those Amendments into the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Amendments in the Bill of Rights that do not apply to states and local governments are: the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, the 3rd Amendment right to not have a soldier quartered in a person's home, the 5th Amendment right to grand jury indictment in criminal cases, the 7th Amendment right to juries in civil cases, and the 8th Amendment right against excessive fines.

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    • The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
      By: TeX HeX
      The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
    • The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
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      The White House, home of the president of the United States.
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      The first ten amendments of the US Constitution are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they enumerate specific rights that are held by American citizens.