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.
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.
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.
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.