History and Significance of the U.S. Bill of Rights (the First 10 Amendments)
The Bill of Rights of the United States represents the first 10 amendments made to the U.S. Constitution. Adopted on December 15, 1791, the goal of the Bill of Rights is to prevent both the federal and states’ governments from engaging in activities or passing laws, that violated natural occurring rights of the people.
When it was first proposed, some delegates argued that the Constitution already protected and guaranteed these rights and freedoms of the people. Therefore, there was no need to make any amendments to the Constitution.
However, many “states’ rights” advocates and anti-federalists inserted those amendments (i.e. the First 10 Amendments) into the Constitution in order to be double certain that the government would never abridge the civil liberties and rights of its people. Below is a brief history and the significance of the Bill of Rights:
List of the First 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution – The Bill of Rights
Originally, James Madison (“the Father of the Constitution”) drafted 17 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1789. All 17 were approved by Congress; however, the number was later reduced to 12 amendments at the U.S. Senate. After it was sent to the various states for ratification, the first two amendments were rejected. The second rejected amendment, pertaining to compensation for Congressmen and Congresswomen, got ratified two centuries later in 1992. It constitutes the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the end, the remaining 10 amendments were successfully ratified by the various states. Therefore, the current First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was initially the third amendment proposed by Madison, became the first. Below is a presentation of the First 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution:
Amendment I (First Amendment)
The First Amendment almost serves as the foundation of the Bill of Rights. To this day, a large section of the American public considers it the greatest amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment guarantees the most basic of rights that every individual gets the moment he/she is born, as well as every person who lives in the United States of America. What this means is that the Constitution protects everyone in the United States from being subjected to a particular type of thought, religion or association. It also frees the press from any governmental influence or oppression.
A lot of emotions come to fore whenever the Second Amendment is brought up. Even though it comes in two clauses, the second clause is what many experts consider the most divisive clause in the U.S. Constitution. This is primarily because of the recent gun violence that has rocked the nation. Opponents of the Right to Bear Arms argue that federal and state governments are not doing enough to regulate arms sale, transportation, and usage in America.
On the other hand, supporters of the Second Amendment contend that the Constitution framers inserted the Second Amendment in order to allow the individuals and the states defend themselves properly. The first clause grants rights to the states to have a “well-regulated militia”. We see this in the form of a national guard today.
The second clause entitles the individual to bear arms, perhaps for self-defense purposes. The framers’ primary goal was to place the security needs of the state in the hands of the states themselves.
During the American Revolution, many people felt like the government was unduly inconveniencing them by forcing them to house soldiers in their homes. The Third Amendment gives house owners the right to decide whether or not to house members of the military in their homes.
Without a good or probable cause, the government had no right to barge into people’s houses and conduct searches. Neither can their properties be confiscated by the government without a solid cause or a court-issued warrant.
Whenever one is in a criminal trial, the person can “plead the fifth” in order to avoid getting incriminated further. Therefore, if an individual believed that giving a testimony had the likelihood of incriminating him/her, then they could decide not to give any testimony. Also, the Fifth Amendment grants people the right to have a due process during a court case.
Another very crucial element of the Fifth Amendment is the concept of “eminent domain”. The concept states that any private property ceased for public use must come with proper compensation to the owner of the property.
Say you find yourself in a criminal trial, the Sixth Amendment is designed to let you have a fair and unbiased trial. Aside from having a judge preside over the case, the person standing trial is eligible to a jury that will decide on whether the person is guilty or not. The Sixth Amendment requires that all criminal trials be held in full view of the public. The accused is also eligible for legal services if he or she cannot afford one. The goal of this amendment is to safeguard against having a kangaroo court.
The Seventh Amendment grants defendants in a civil case the right to be judged by a jury. Furthermore, the court is prohibited from disregarding the case findings of the jury.
The Eighth Amendment concerns itself with bails, fines and appropriate punishments for crimes committed. Opponents of the death penalty often cite the Eighth Amendment as a strong basis to further their argument. Another important thing is that the government is completely forbidden from subjugating the individual to too many fines and bail money.
When the argument was made on whether to incorporate the 10 Amendments into the Constitution, Federalists argued that the amendments would create a situation where the government could do things outside the Bill of Rights. They believed that natural rights were implied and did not need any amendments to ensure their enforcement. Besides, it was (and still is) impossible to have a list of all the rights that people must have.
However, many anti-federalists begged to differ otherwise. And so the framers of the Constitution decided to add a clause that allowed the people to hold additional rights that haven’t been stated in the Bill of Rights. Simply put, the Eighth Amendment states that the Bill of Rights in itself was not an exhaustive document.
The Tenth Amendment is pretty much straightforward. It allows the states or the people to assume the additional powers that don’t fall under the purview of the federal government. The states could act in a varied manner, but the federal government’s power ends where the Constitution says so.
How was the Bill of Rights Derived?
The Bill of Rights drew a lot of inspiration from three historical documents: the Magna Carta (1215); the English Bill of Rights (1689); and Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights.
Madison’s original intention was to change the wording of the Constitution in order to incorporate his proposed Bill of Rights. However, many of his fellow House of Representatives thought otherwise. They vehemently opposed changing the wording of the U.S. Constitution. Hence, the proposed Bill of Rights then had to be presented as a list of Constitutional Amendments.
After several debates, the House of Representatives voted for 17 amendments. However, when the proposed document reached the floor of the Senate, 5 amendments were taken out. In August 1789, delegates sent the 12 amendments to their respective states to be voted on. Subsequently, the Bill of Rights was adopted on December 15, 1791.
Who wrote the Bill of Rights?
The Bill of Rights was written by James Madison and submitted to Congress in 1789. Madison is regarded as having the greatest influence on drafting and interpreting the U.S. Constitution. None of the Founding Fathers can compete with the immense contribution Madison made to ensure that the United States became a functioning and democratic republic.
Madison was first and foremost a federalist. He is credited with penning down the majority of the Federalist Papers. In those publications, Madison argued in favor of the separation of powers. He also supported having a republic that gave some level of autonomy to states. He called on the federal government to work in harmony with the various states. Madison believed that the Bill of Rights was crucial in ensuring the survival of the relationship between the federal government and the states in a large republic.
Why was the Bill of Rights created?
The following are the two core reasons why the framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Bill of Rights:
- It places prohibitions on governmental power – both at the federal and state level – that could likely infringe upon the individual rights and liberties.
- In essence, it regulates the relationship between the government and the governed (i.e. the people).
Significance of the United States Bill of Rights
Before the U.S. Constitution was signed by delegates from the various states, a number of those states raised concerns that the Constitution lacked explicit statements that could safeguard the natural rights of the people. They believed that if care was not taken, the central government/federal government could one day violate the basic people’s freedoms such as freedom of religion, speech, and assembly.
Therefore, there was some amount of trepidation among many delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A significant number of those delegates (mostly anti-federalists) and their states even refused to ratify the Constitution in Philadelphia. They believed that the U.S. Constitution lacked some fundamentals that could properly halt federal governments from infringing upon the rights of the states and the people. The Bill of Rights was therefore drafted in order to allay any fears of such things happening in the future.
Reasons why the Bill of Rights was initially opposed by some Founding Fathers
Ever wonder why the Bill of Rights was not initially included in the Constitution in 1787? The answer lies below:
In May 1787, a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia. 39 out of the 55 delegates ratified the Constitution – they rejected calls to have the Bill of Rights inserted into it. Here are a few major reasons why the Bill of Rights was originally rejected by some delegates:
- It sounded similar to the British concept of monarchy.
The wording, “Bill of Rights”, elicited fears from federalists that the document could one day become like the Coronation Charter of King Henry I in 1100 AD; or the Magna Carta of 1215 AD; or the English Bill of Rights of 1689—concessions made by British monarchs to allow the people’s representatives manage some aspect of the country.
Therefore, some founding fathers were a bit uneasy about having the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. In the first place, the Americans (white male landowners) already had the rights to elect their representatives to govern the country. They reasoned that there was no need to have a document in place to protect the people from the government. The people themselves were part of the governance of the nation. Therefore, how could the people themselves violate their own rights?
Worst case scenario – the government violated the rights of the people. All they had to do was vote those representatives out of office and elect people who would represent the people in a fair and just manner. The Bill of Rights was therefore completely unnecessary, they reasoned.
- Some believed that the Bill of Rights would provide Anti-federalists undue advantage
Some founding fathers refused to entertain the Bill of Rights because they believed it played into the hands of Anti-federalists. For a very long time, anti-federalists rallied support in favor of having a decentralized and a not so powerful federal government. Their primary concern was to safeguard the autonomy and rights of the states in the union. Therefore, many founding fathers reasoned that the Bill of Rights would be used to push for anti-federalist agenda and policies in America.
- It was a sheer case of misunderstanding
The Bill of Rights was initially miscued to mean a document that curtailed the powers of the federal government. Federalists believed that there was no point inserting a statement that restrained the power of the government when in the first place, the government had no power to do that said act. For example, Alexander Hamilton – a staunch federalist – argued that putting in place such curtailing documents would in itself create an environment that allowed the government to bypass those restrictions.
- The document was seen as completely unnecessary
Critics of the Bill of Rights reasoned that the document was in fact useless because there was no mechanism in place to force Congress to comply with it. Say Congress decided to act in an overreaching manner, which body could reign in on the acts of Congress? There simply was no institution, at the time, to overrule the decisions of Congress. Mind you, when federalists made this argument, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet assumed its current mandate – the mandate to overrule legislation that the Supreme Court deemed as a violation of the Constitution only came in 1803. Therefore, it was perfectly normal for federalists to reason that the Bill of Rights was just one of those unnecessary documents that just barked but had no ability to bite.
- Existing mechanism existed
Of what use was the Bill of Rights when the prevailing U.S. Constitution already guaranteed such freedoms and rights? According to federalists, The Constitution worked perfectly alright in preventing the government from overstepping its boundaries or abridging the rights of the people. Why fix something that was already fixed? These were some of the questions raised by the federalists in Congress. They went on to cite Article I, Section 9 and Article VI of the Constitution. These sections of the Constitution were in themselves enough to halt the government from say conducting a search without appropriate warrants (in the case of Article I) or say carrying out public office recruiting on the basis of religious affiliations (that is in the case of Article VI). Weren’t those sections in the U.S. Constitution enough? Federalists pondered why anti-federalists wanted to introduce a mechanism that was not needed.
The Immense Role Played by Thomas Jefferson
In retrospect, the Bill of Rights would not have seen the light of the day had people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson not come on board to support it. Most of the convincing and lobbying were done by Jefferson.
Prior to 1789, Madison was somewhat not entirely on board the idea of having the Bill of Rights. However, he would later become a staunch supporter of the Bill of Rights after having several debates and conversations with his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Madison took on the responsibility of drafting what eventually became the 10 amendments that we see in the U.S. Constitution.
Furthermore, proponents and supporters of the Bill of Rights got winds in their sail when the highest court of the land – the U.S. Supreme Court – assumed the responsibility of checking the affairs and legislation of not just Congress but also the Executive. This was in 1803.
Fast forward to 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court took it a step further by passing a ruling (Gitlow v. State of New York, 1925) that compelled individual states in the Union to abide by the Bill of Rights. By so doing, the “incorporation principle”, with the support of the 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution, was born. Ever since then, both the federal and state governments became constitutionally bound to keep their hands off certain untouchable areas in people’s lives.