Court Resources: Guide to the Bill of Rights

In 1775, the 13 colonies were already engaged in the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain. In May of that year, a meeting of delegates representing all 13 colonies was formed in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Called the Second Continental Congress, the delegates soon declared their independence from Great Britain by adopting the United States Declaration of Independence. During the convention, the delegates also drafted the Articles of Confederation. Drafted in 1777, this document was the first Constitution and set up a Federal government with limited powers; once the war was over, however, this government proved too weak and ineffective, especially when dealing with foreign affairs and raising money to run the government.

In response to dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787. After much debate, delegates decided to ratify a new Constitution. Called the Constitution of the United States of America, the document created a much stronger national government divided into three branches to ensure a balance of power. The document had the support of the Federalist, those who were for a strong national government but anti-Federalist, felt that the document failed to protect individual liberties and would result in tyranny.

Before the document could be ratified, it had to be approved by nine states and on June 21, 1788, the ninth state, New Hampshire, approved. The decision of many states to ratify the Constitution came about with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added and on December 15, 1791, 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights were ratified. These amendments were designed to protect fundamental individual freedoms from government control and to define the limits of power of the Federal government.

Amendment I

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 covers religion, free speech, assembly, and petition. The religious aspect guarantees individuals the right to practice or believe in any religion or not to believe in a religion if they choose too. The right to free speech ensures citizens can say or publish whatever they choose, including in newspapers and other printed matter without legislative constraints. The amendment also states that Congress also cannot stop peaceful demonstrations and gives citizens to right to make complaints and petition for change.

Amendment II

 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.

Individuals have the right to keep guns in their own homes for their defense.

 Amendment III

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.

In peaceful times, citizens cannot be forced to lodge soldiers on their private property. Even during a war, soldiers cannot stay within an individual’s home without permission unless Congress has passed a law allowing it.

 Amendment IV

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 police or other authorities cannot do a search or seizure without having probable cause. Before authorities can check someone’s body, home, papers or other effects they must have a warrant issued by a judge.

 Amendment V

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 covers several important clauses that protect the people against governmental authority. Before being tried for a federal criminal charge, the accused has the right to appear before a Grand Jury. This group of individuals will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial. If acquitted of the charges or convicted, the accused is protected against double jeopardy – a second trial for the same offense. During times of war or national emergencies, however, members of the military can face trail without first going before a Grand Jury.

In criminal cases, the accused individual can also not be made to testify against himself. The due process aspect of the amendment ensures that all individuals are treated fairly in proceedings. The government cannot kill, fine, take property or sentence a person to jail unless they are convicted of a crime.

The Fifth Amendment also defines how the government can take private property. If the government requires an individual’s private property, they must compensate the individual for their loss.

 Amendment VI

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.

Those accused of a crime have the right to a speedy trial that is open to the public. To prevent abuse, the accused cannot be kept in jail indefinitely without being tried. The case has to be presented before an impartial jury which has been chosen from people in the surrounding community. The accused also has to be informed of what crimes they are being charged with, and has the right speak to any witnesses that are accusing them. Accused individuals also have the right to have a lawyer assist them and to call witnesses in their favor.

 Amendment VII

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.

In federal civil cases, the right to a trial by jury is preserved.

 Amendment VIII

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

The accused cannot be subject to excessive amounts of bail or fines. Even after being convicted, the accused is protected against torture and other cruel or unusual punishments.

 Amendment IX

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

This amendment makes it clear that the rights of the people listed in the proceeding eight amendments, does not mean that the people do not have other fundamental rights.

Amendment X

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 powers of the Federal government are limited to those defined by the Constitution. Any powers not specified are left up to individual states and the people to control.

The Bill of Rights has not been altered since they were first written. The interpretation of these amendments, however, can change over time. Activist, unions, average citizens, and other groups, often debate issues related to individual amendments in the Bill of Rights in courts of laws. As these issues are debated, they are sometimes interpreted narrowly, or literally. Other times, however, these amendments are interpreted broadly, offering more room to ensure human rights and social advancement as they exist in present times. Today, the Bill of Rights is present in basically all aspects of life, protecting an individuals rights to spread negative opinions on the Internet, practice unpopular religions and be treated fairly by the police and the courts when accused of a crime.

The following resources offer lessons, history, background, and more about the Bill of Rights.

  • A More Perfect Union: Get an in-depth understanding of how the Bill of Rights came to be added to the Constitution and the battle over it from the view points of Federalist who wanted a stronger government and Anti-Federalist who wanted to ensure the protection of individual liberties.
  • A Brief History of The Bill of Rights: This article from the American Civil Liberties Union examines why liberty and individual rights were so important to early Americans. Information on the importance of later amendments is also included.
  • Bill of Rights Game: This fun game takes place in the town of Freeville, where users have to figure out which freedom or right applies to different situations.
  • Bill of Rights Lessons: Learn about each amendment in the Bill of Rights through discussion questions and activities.
  • Bill of Rights Vocabulary Quiz: Having trouble understanding the language used in the Bill of Rights? Complete these vocabulary quizzes to get the full meaning of the text.
  • Brief Version of the Bill of Rights: Read this very brief summary of the Bill of Rights then get a more comprehensive understanding by reading the full text of the Bill of Rights.
  • Constitution Facts: Before states ratified the Constitution, they wanted a Bill of Rights to protect basic human liberties. This brief article explores this theme and the 12 amendments that were eventually whittled down to the first 10 we know today.
  • Creating the Bill of Rights: The Bill of Rights was reached through compromise, this online exhibition tracks how this compromise was reached.
  • The Bill of Rights & Thomas Jefferson: Thomas Jefferson was wary of a government without a defined set of rules that ensured the rights of the people. Read quotes on Jefferson’s opinions here to gain a better perceptive of his ideas on government and politics.