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The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights

Period: 1787

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Seven states had bills of rights protecting fundamental freedoms from government infringement. Among the rights that were guaranteed were freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, and the right to a jury trial.

The Constitutional Convention did include specific protections in the Constitution. Article VI restricted government interference with religion and speech. It also provided certain protections in criminal law. It guaranteed that the writ of habeas corpus (a protection against illegal imprisonment) "shall not be suspended" except in times of rebellion or invasion. It also prohibited bills of attainder (imposing punishment on a person's descendants) and ex post facto laws (laws that punish behavior that took place before their enactment. It also forbade any state to pass laws "impairing the obligation of contracts."

George Mason, the main author of Virginia's 1776 Declaration of Rights, wished that the Constitution "had been prefaced with a bill of rights." But James Madison felt a bill of rights was unnecessary and superfluous. He feared that by specifying certain rights for protection might suggest that other rights might be tampered with. He also worried that such protections would be insufficient "on those occasions when control is most needed."

But pressure for a Bill of Rights was intense. Thomas Jefferson wrote Madison: "...a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no government should refuse or rest on inference." During the ratification debates, the Constitution's supporters agreed to adopt a Bill of Rights.

State ratification conventions proposed more than two hundred proposed amendments. From these, Madison distilled 19 possible amendments. Congress accepted 12 of the Amendments and the states approved 10. One of the rejected amendments dealt with the size of the House of Representatives. The other amendment prevents Congress from increasing its salary. Salary changes cannot take effect until after the next congressional election. This amendment was ratified in 1992.

During the 19th century, the impact of the Bill of Rights was limited. In the 1833 case of Barron v. Baltimore, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights only protects individuals from the national, and not the state, governments.

The First Ten Amendments

I. Freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the right of assembly and to petition government

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from creating an established church. It has been interpreted to forbid government support for religious doctrines. The amendment also prohibits Congress from passing laws to restrict worship, speech, the press, or to prevent people from assembling peacefully. In addition, Congress may not prevent people from petitioning government.

II. Right to bear arms

The Second Amendment has been interpreted by some to give citizens the right to possess firearms. Others believe it grants the states the right to maintain their own militias.

III. Billeting of soldiers

The Third Amendment forbids the government from housing soldiers in homes in peacetime without their owners' consent.

IV. Searches and seizures

The Fourth Amendment requires legal authorities to obtain a search warrant before conducting a search of a person's possessions.

V. Rights in criminal cases

The Fifth Amendment says that no one can be tried for a federal crime unless he or she is indicted by a grand jury, a group of citizens who decided whether there is sufficient evidence to put the person on trial. The amendment also states that a person cannot be tried twice for the same offense (unless the jury fails to reach a verdict). The amendment guarantees that individuals cannot be required to testify against themselves and cannot be deprived of "life liberty or property, without due process of law." The amendment also forbids government from taking a person's property for public use without fair payment.

VI. Rights to a fair trial

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a person accused of a crime the right to a "speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury" in the jurisdiction where the alleged crime was committed. The Amendment also guarantees that accused persons will be informed of the charges against them and that they have the right to cross-examine witnesses and to have a lawyer to defend them.

VII. Rights in civil cases

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil lawsuits.

VIII. Bails, fine, and punishments

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail or fines and "cruel and unusual" punishments.

IX. Rights retained by the people

The Ninth Amendment ensures that rights unmentioned in the Bill of Rights are protected.

X. Powers retained by the states and the people

The Tenth Amendment ensures that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states and the people.

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This site was updated on 23-Jul-10.

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