The Bill of Rights: What Does it Say?

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The Bill of Rights: What Does it Say?

The United States Constitution is one of the most important documents in our country’s history. The creation of these guidelines marked a pivotal moment for Americans, showing a glimpse of what the nation would be in the future. The document acts as a framework for how our nation should be governed and what the relationship between citizens and government entails. Without these ground rules, there would be no basis for how we should be treated. Essentially, there’d be no democracy. 

Probably the most crucial aspect of the Constitution is The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the document. These ten amendments explicitly state Americans’ civil rights and liberties: the freedom of speech, press, religion, and more. These privileges are guaranteed to every citizen and viewed as fundamental human rights. In many ways, these rights are the very things that make America what it is. When people refer to the country as “the land of the free,” this is why. 

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Background of the Bill of Rights

The path to getting the constitution ratified was not easy. Prior to its implementation, the thirteen American colonies operated under the statutes of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation was the original structure of America’s government, ratified eight years before the U.S. Constitution and created by the Second Continental Congress. However, it gave too little power to the central government, allowing conflicts among states to arise with no one to intervene. 

In May of 1787, delegates from every state gathered at the Philadelphia Convention to discuss an updated version of the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was named president of the convention. Though the purpose of the meeting was to revise the Articles, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York had different plans. 

The two delegates were committed to creating an entirely new government that was empowered at the federal level, which many of their peers would eventually support. However, they would face great opposition from other delegates like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. 

After months of debate and delegation, the convention was able to produce a rough draft of a constitution. Fifty-five men were involved in its drafting. The document was four pages in length. 

Still, there remained a percentage of delegates that opposed the Constitution’s ratification. These delegates would be known as anti-federalists, while those who supported its ratification were called federalists. 

Anti-federalists did everything they could to stop the ratification process. However, after months of going back and forth with the federalists, they were forced to come to a compromise and accept ratification under one condition: that a set of basic, universal rights would be guaranteed in a separate document. 

People like Thomas Jefferson argued that the Constitution did not protect the people’s universal rights because it never explicitly stated them. Therefore, a list of ten amendments was added to the Constitution. This list is known as The Bill of Rights. The ten amendments are listed below. 

The First Amendment

The First Amendment promises access to several basic rights: the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble or gather with a group, and the freedom to petition against the government. 

However, there are a few caveats to these freedoms. Though every American has a right to express themselves verbally, freedom of speech does not include harassment or any type of speech that incites violence or unrest. Similarly, the freedom of the press does not absolve journalists from reporting accurate information. Lastly, the freedom of religion clause also restricts the federal government from endorsing one specific religion. 

The Second Amendment

The Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. Basically, this means that the government can never take away our guns or right to defend ourselves. That said, each state is still subject to its own laws surrounding firearms. Access to firearms also varies from state to state. 

The Third Amendment

The Third Amendment restricts the government from housing soldiers in citizens’ homes. Before the Revolutionary War, Great Britain imposed a quartering act that gave soldiers the right to take over private homes at their own discretion. There was nothing that citizens could do to stop them, and there was no supervision to prevent soldiers from taking advantage of their privilege. 

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment bars the government from unreasonable searches and seizures of citizens and their properties. This amendment applies to both federal agents and law enforcement. Authorities must have probable cause in order to search or seize an individual’s property, such as their vehicle. Probable cause is defined as a legal standard of proof to issue a search. The level of proof that succeeds probable cause is reasonable suspicion, which is used to issue arrests or warrants. 

The Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment provides protections for individuals accused of crimes. The law states that significant criminal charges must be initiated by a grand jury. It also states that a person cannot be tried twice for the same offense, which would be considered double jeopardy. They also cannot have their property taken away without fair compensation. 

In addition, people are protected against self-incrimination and cannot be imprisoned without due process of law. Due process of law is defined as a fair court procedure and trial. 

The Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment adds to the Fifth Amendment with additional protections for people accused of crimes. Citizens have the right to a speedy and public trial, a trial by an impartial jury, and a clear statement of all their criminal charges. Witnesses must face the accused, and the accused is allowed his or her own witnesses, as well as an attorney. 

These laws also determine how the due process of law functions, reserving all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states. 

The Seventh Amendment

The Seventh Amendment extends the right for people accused of crimes to a jury trial in federal civil cases. An example of a federal civil case is an antitrust action against a business violating copyright rules. Civil cases are settled with monetary compensation and don’t result in the imprisonment of the lawsuit loser. 

The Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment disallows excessive bails and fines, as well as cruel and unusual punishments by the government and law enforcement. Bails and fines must be predicated on past prices from similar cases. It is also influenced by the defendant’s criminal record, job history, and their ties to the community. 

The Ninth Amendment

The Ninth Amendment acts as a disclaimer that just because specific rights have been explicitly stated in the Constitution, that does not mean that other rights that have not been spelled out are invalid. Intricacies of certain laws that are unclear are usually settled through Supreme Court cases, where a precedent is set for the future. 

The Tenth Amendment

The Tenth Amendment borders the same lines as the Ninth Amendment, stating that the federal government only has the powers that are specifically delegated in the Constitution. If it isn’t written, it belongs to the states or to the people. This amendment was created as a safeguard for citizens to prevent the federal government from abusing its power. 

Conclusion

The Bill of Rights had little impact in the courtrooms for its first 150 years in print. The Court made little to no significant decisions regarding any of the amendments until 1931 in Stromberg v. California, when they decided that it was illegal to display red flags in opposition to the government. 

During this time, much of the focus surrounding the government was balancing the power at the state and federal levels. The federalist and anti-federalist feuds were as rampant as ever. However, the anti-federalists had rebranded themselves in 1792, now calling themselves the Democratic-Republicans. Because of this division, the Bill of Rights took several decades to be accepted socially and culturally. 

In addition, the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government; that is, until the twentieth century, when a majority of the bill’s provisions were applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. For this reason, the Bill of Rights lacked power for most of its early existence. 

If you’re in search of some awesome merchandise related to the Bill of Rights, check out the Printed Kicks online store! Our Not the Bill of Feelings t-shirt is a hilarious take on the current political climate. The design also comes in the form of a hoodie and a long-sleeve shirt. It is even available on tumblers and mugs. Without a doubt, you’re sure to get a few laughs out of this one. 

 

Sources

Bill of Rights | archives.gov

Bill of Rights (1791) | billofrightsinstitute.org 

Bill of Rights | Definition, Origins, Contents, & Application to the States | Britannica 


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