Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.
On July 4, 1776, the thirteen American colonies officially declared themselves to be free of Great Britain. In their document the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen American colonies announced that they no longer recognized themselves as part of the British Empire. They formed a new nation, the United States of America.
Following this, the new United States had to develop its own constitution. In 1787, delegates from the new thirteen states gathered to participate in a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. At this time, the delegates developed the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. The original goal of the convention and the Constitution was to develop a balance between the state and federal governments. Because this was the focus, there was little discussion and interest of individual rights. Although some thought a Bill of Rights was necessary, the motion was originally defeated and the Constitution moved forward without it.
Unfortunately, the Constitution was not immediately ratified, and some who opposed it did so because of the lack of a Bill of Rights. For four years, there was heavy debate among the states. Those who supported the idea of a big government did not feel that a Bill of Rights was necessary. However, those who worried about government having too much power would not ratify the Constitution until individual rights were also considered. Eventually, the desire for individual rights became the popular position. The new American citizens had just freed themselves from Great Britain. The people did not want to worry about their freedoms in their new country. Because of this, it was decided that the Bill of Rights should be drafted and included.
The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution, was written by James Madison. After the four years of debate and the final agreement to include individual rights as well, Madison developed the new amendments instead of making any changes to the actual Constitution. Many people look at the Bill of Rights not just as individual rights, but a way to make sure that the federal government does not gain too much power. Let's review these ten amendments now.
Amendment One guarantees us the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Many people look at this amendment as a foundation of the United States. Without this amendment, people could be persecuted because of their religion. In addition, we would be limited on what we are allowed to say about our government or even if we were able to meet in protest. Finally, without this amendment, our press would be censored. Right now, many of us have grown accustomed to reading or listening to many different opinions in the news. We have a freedom to debate different ideas, meet publicly and discuss them, and to engage in argument. This is all because of the First Amendment.
Amendment Two guarantees the right to keep and bear arms in order to maintain a well-regulated militia. Remember that the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that the new American citizens would not lose personal freedoms to the government. This amendment was important to the new Americans because this very thing happened in Great Britain in the late 1600s. The British government had voted to allow their citizens to be disarmed, thus taking away their right to form a militia to overtake the government. The Second Amendment allows citizens to keep themselves armed and to maintain a militia.
Amendment Three guarantees no quartering of soldiers. This means that during a time of peace, the United States would not let soldiers enter a home and take residency without the owner's permission. In times of war, this law was also true, unless arrangements were made beforehand. Why was this important? Remember that the United States had just defeated Great Britain in a long war. During that time, the British army often entered citizens' homes and forced them to allow the army to stay. If the home owner refused to allow the army to stay, he/she would be tried for treason. The Third Amendment promised the home owners that this would not happen to them again.
Amendment Four guarantees freedom from unreasonable search and seizures. This amendment protects us from police or government officials searching our belongings, unless it is stated by the court. This was important to colonial America because prior this amendment, they did not have this luxury. Although Great Britain did not allow unlawful searches in their homeland, this protection did not expand to the colonies. Colonists were often subjected to searches on imports, but this new amendment changed and protected this right.
Amendment Five states the right to due process of law. Citizens are free from self-incrimination and double jeopardy. This first means that everyone is treated the same by the police, the courts, and the government. A person cannot be charged or property taken from him/her without following the same set of procedure given to someone else. As citizens, no person could be tried for a crime without first being presented to a grand jury. The grand jury's role is to decide if there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial. Once someone is put on trial and the trial ends, he/she cannot be tried again for that same crime. Finally, a person cannot be forced to testify against him/herself.
Amendment Six protects the citizens by promising a speedy and public trial. The first part of this amendment promises that a person accused of a crime will not sit in jail waiting for a trial to start. Although a trial may last for awhile, it should start in a reasonable time. In addition, this amendment states that a trial should be held in public and before an impartial jury. Finally, someone accused of a crime has the right to know what he/she is being charged with, face his/her accuser, and the right to an attorney. If you have ever watched a police show, it is possible that you can now quote the famous lines, 'you have the right to an attorney....' You can thank the Sixth Amendment for this.
Amendment Seven promises a jury in a civil case. At the time this amendment was written, the forefathers stated that any amount over twenty dollars would be tried before a jury. This amendment is considered the most straightforward of the ten and not questioned any further than how it is stated.
Amendment Eight gives the freedom from excessive bail and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. Let's focus on the first part of the amendment, excessive bail. This part of the amendment promises that no one will be subjected to a high bail that does not reflect the crime. Bail should be given based on the severity of the crime and on the flight risk of the individual. The second part of the Eighth Amendment guarantees that when someone is convicted of a crime, he/she cannot be punished cruelly. We often debate what this means today, but at the time this amendment was written, the punishments given were much crueler. People would be burned, branded, hands cut off, pulled apart by horses, or even sat in front of a crowd to be laughed at and have things thrown at them. The Eighth Amendment guaranteed the new citizens that a person would not be punished in an unusual or cruel way.
Amendment Nine focuses on the other rights of the people. Although James Madison listed many individual rights in the Bill of Rights, he still recognized that there were other rights given to people. The Ninth Amendment recognizes that there may be other rights than these listed that people may have. We are still unclear exactly what Madison intended for this Amendment, but many people think that he is simply stating that we all have natural, given rights.
Amendment Ten focuses on the powers of the states. Any power not given to the federal government in the Constitution is given to the states. For example, driver's licenses, marriage licenses, divorce laws, or state taxes are not addressed in the Constitution. The federal government does not play a role in these laws because there is no mention in the Constitution.
On July 4, 1776, the thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Great Britain and became the first thirteen states in the Declaration of Independence. Following their new freedom, the thirteen states each sent delegates to take part in the Constitutional Convention. At the convention, the delegates focused on developing the federal government and its power. Because of this, individual rights were not immediately taken into account. However, after the Constitution was not ratified, individual rights were included as a compromise.
Rather than change the Constitution, the first ten amendments were added, and became known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments promise individual rights.
- First Amendment: freedom of religion, speech and press
- Second Amendment: right to bear arms
- Third Amendment: right to refuse to quarter soldiers
- Fourth Amendment: freedom from unlawful search or seizures
- Fifth Amendment: right to due process
- Sixth Amendment: right to a speedy and public trial
- Seventh Amendment: right to a jury trial in a civil case
- Eighth Amendment: freedom from excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment
- Ninth Amendment: guarantees other rights of people
- Tenth Amendment: gives power to states
The Bill of Rights reflects not just the foundations of many of our personal freedoms, but also the desire for the new country to balance the role of government and the rights of the people.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the history of the Bill of Rights
- Define each of the ten amendments added to the constitution in 1791
- Identify the reasoning behind the need for the Bill of Rights
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