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Bill of Rights - History

Bill of Rights - History

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On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States proposed to the state legislatures twelve amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The first two, concerning the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified.* Articles three through twelve&mdashknown as the Bill of Rights&mdashwere ratified by the states on December 15, 1791, and became the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights contains guarantees of essential rights and liberties omitted in the crafting of the original Constitution.

Use the navigation menu on the left to access sections of this guide on digital collections, related online resources, external websites, and a bibliography of books providing more information on the Bill of Rights.

Printed by Thomas Greenleaf. [Twelve articles, the Bill of Rights as submitted to the states]. 1789. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Bill of Rights. [between ca. 1920 and ca. 1930]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A bill of rights as provided in the ten original amendments to the constitution of the United States in force December 15, 1791 . 1950. Printed Ephemera Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

*Note: The original second amendment proposed by the First Federal Congress dealt with the compensation of members of Congress. Although rejected at the time, it was eventually ratified on May 7, 1992, as the 27th Amendment.

Brief History and Summary of the American Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Here is a brief history and description of those amendments.

The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments were integral to the ratification of the Constitution, as some of the states would not have accepted the new Constitution without them. The Bill of Rights places specific restrictions on the government and guarantees certain liberties to the citizens of the United States.

The Origin of the Bill of Rights

From 1781 until the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the newly formed United States had a very different form of government under the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, there existed a very weak central government which left most power to the individual states. The central government was unable to raise taxes, regulate trade, or wage a war. The weakness of the central government was intentional, as the newly independent Americans feared the taxation and oppression which could come from a strong central government.

Soon, however, it became apparent that the government was too weak, and that the new nation could not function under the Articles of Confederation. So, in 1787, all of the states except for Rhode Island, which was opposed to revisions to the Articles or a new constitution, sent delegates to Philadelphia to come up with something new. The created the Constitution, which then required ratification by nine states before it could be put into place.

Five states ratified the Constitution by January of 1788, but ratification by the others was very uncertain, because many worried that the new Constitution gave the government too much power. As a result, most of the remaining states requested that a bill of rights be included, in order to place restraints on the government and protect individual freedoms. After being promised such a bill of rights, the Constitution was ratified in 1788. Then, in 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, was also ratified.

Why is the Bill of Rights Important?

Why is the Bill of Rights important? Because even though many Founding Fathers thought they would be assumed and not need constitutional protection, they could be infringed upon if not guaranteed. Among those who thought that constitutional protection was not necessary was Roger Sherman, an early American lawyer and statesmen, along with being a Founding Father who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitutuion.

Sherman’s states’ rights convictions led him to oppose the inclusion of a bill of rights with the Constitution. He believed that by insisting on “federal” guarantees of individual liberty, the new central government could exclude all other rights not listed and thus greatly reduce liberty. He argued that the states already had specific guarantees of rights, and because the new central government would not have the delegated authority to infringe upon those rights, the states could easily protect individual liberty from federal usurpation. His objections were sophisticated and duly noted and ultimately led to the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution.

Why is the Bill of Rights Important?

Sherman was immediately elected as an at-large member of the United States House of Representatives in 1788, where he served one term from 1789 to 1791. He supported a Bank of the United States and the retirement of the federal debt and helped hammer out the compromise that led to the assumption of state debts in return for planting the federal capital along the Potomac, otherwise known as the “assumption scheme.” He was chosen to serve in the United States Senate in 1791 and served there until his death in 1793 at the age of 72.

Sherman can be seen as an Anti-Federalist Federalist. Sherman believed the Constitution granted the federal government limited, delegated authority he believed it maintained states’ rights, and he would not have signed it and supported it otherwise. He was a Connecticuter to the end, the representative and defender of his state, and one who believed that the executive power should be limited because “no one man could be found so far above all the rest in wisdom.” Sherman knew that an unchecked executive is “the very essence of tyranny,” and that the best check on the power of the executive branch of the federal government was the authority of the sovereign states—an observation that seems very distant from where we are now.

Bill of Rights

Antipathy toward a strong central government was only one concern among those opposed to the Constitution. Of equal concern to many was the fear that the Constitution did not sufficiently protect individual rights and freedoms.

The concern for possible encroachment of personal liberties by state governments had already been manifested in the various state constitutions. That of Massachusetts, written by John Adams, adopted on June 15, 1780, and still today, as amended, the governing document of the commonwealth, began with a "Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," which ran to thirty articles and began with:

The first Congress convened in New York City in March, 1789. It was something of a role reversal when James Madison introduced the proposed amendments on June 8, 1789. It had been the position of Madison and the other Federalists that a bill of rights in the constitution was unnecessary, but there had been a clamor for one during the ratification process. Realizing that ratification would be difficult and perhaps impossible without pledging to add immediate amendments, the Federalists had switched their position. On September 25, 1789, twelve amendments were proposed by Congress. The first state to ratify the ten that became the Bill of Rights was New Jersey on November 20. On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify them and the Bill of Rights came into force. The final ratification from the 14 states then in existence came on April 19, 1792, when Connecticut approved the ten amendments. Vermont had both become a state and ratified the constitution with the amendments before this date.

The Bill of Rights comprises the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Among their provisions:

  • the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and the right to assemble peacefully, protest and demand changes (Amendment I)
  • the right to bear arms (Amendment II)
  • the protection from quartering of troops (Amendment III)
  • the protection against unreasonable searches, seizures of property, and arrest (Amendment IV)
  • due process of law in all criminal cases (Amendment V)
  • the right to a fair and speedy trial (Amendment VI)
  • civil trial by jury (Amendment VII)
  • the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (Amendment VIII)
  • the provision that the people retain additional rights not listed in the Constitution (Amendment IX)
  • Powers of States and people.(Amendment X)

The Bill of Rights is a series of Amendments to the Constitution and, therefore, is not subject to repeal by Congressional action.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has refined the precise meaning of the Bill of Rights through many court cases that established precedents. The First Amendment right to "free speech" has been extended to artistic expression and political demonstrations such as burning the American flag. Freedom of religion has been interpreted as denying the routine preference for Christianity that was universal in 1789. The right to bear arms is controversial at both the low end (handguns) and high end (assault weapons). The powers reserved to the states have been interpreted more narrowly since the New Deal. The two amendments proposed at the same time were not properly concerned with individual rights. One concerning representation in the House of Representatives has never been ratified. The other, regarding increases in salaries during terms of office, was ratified as the 27th amendment two centuries after being proposed by Congress.

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights was passed by the newly formed United States Congress.

A significant concern of the anti-Federalists – and one which they argued passionately and effectively – was that the Constitution said nothing about individual freedoms. The protection of natural rights and the liberty of all men, so eloquently espoused in the Declaration of Independence, was noticeably absent in the Constitution. While it established a balanced political system and a government of the people, the Constitution said nothing explicit about protecting those whom it was designed to govern. This issue became the greatest ‘sticking point’ during ratification. The Federalists claimed that the protection of rights was inherent in such a system that the separation of powers would not enable either of the three branches of government to infringe on rights. Alexander Hamilton went further and claimed that a declaration of rights would be a waste of time, since the protection of individual freedoms and rights was best left to common law. Such a system, Hamilton suggested, was far more flexible and adaptable than ascribing rights in the Constitution, where they would be fixed. Nevertheless, many weren’t convinced that their rights would be protected, which shows the suspicions they held about the new political system forged in 1787. If the powers of the three branches of government could be limited by the wording of the Constitution then it could also protect individual rights.

The Constitution was ratified in mid-1788 without any advance or agreement on the matter of rights, yet it continued to create debate and criticism. It was James Madison, responsible for much of the Constitution himself, who was the first notable Federalist to give way on a proposed Bill of Rights. Speaking in June 1789, Madison suggested that while a restructuring of the entire Constitution was too difficult, he was willing to entertain the idea of an amendment: “I do wish to see a door opened to consider, so far as to incorporate those provisions for the security of rights, against which I believe no serious objection has been made by any class of our constituents.” It was Madison who set about drafting a series of proposed amendments. He drew the content from three sources: John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the more contemporary Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 1776). In consultation with others, Madison drafted a series of proposed amendments, tabling these before Congress in June 1789. Congress passed them to the states for ratification, a process that was complete by late 1791.

A historian’s view:
“The decision not to include a list of individual rights was an error of judgment on the part of the supporters of the Constitution that would have dire consequences. Even as the document was being finalised, several prominent delegates demanded that a second constitutional convention be held to correct what they considered to be serious defects in the [document] they were writing. [But] it had taken extraordinary effort on the part of many individuals to organise this first convention and bring it to a successful conclusion. A second convention could create political instability, even chaos.”
Richard E. Labunski

The Bill of Rights is a series of ten amendments to the Constitution which explicitly protects the legal, civil and human rights of all Americans and visitors to the United States. Among those specifically protected are freedoms of speech, the press, religion, assembly and petition. Governments may not impose on the life, liberty or property of individuals unless the due process of law has been followed. Legally, individuals are protected by the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments: they have the right to a trial by jury, may not be detained without charge, may not be tried twice for the same crime and have the right not to incriminate themselves when giving testimony. Controversially, the Second Amendment also protects the right to bear arms (in the 1780s considered an important civil safeguard against oppressive governments or standing armies). The Third Amendment prevents the government from quartering soldiers in private homes. As can be seen, many aspects of the Bill of Rights stemmed from grievances and impositions perceived during the 1760s and 1770s.

Additional Text

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution make up the Bill of Rights. James Madison wrote the amendments, which list specific prohibitions on governmental power, in response to calls from several states for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties. For example, the Founders saw the ability to speak and worship freely as a natural right protected by the First Amendment. Congress is prohibited from making laws establishing religion or abridging freedom of speech. The Fourth Amendment safeguards citizens’ right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion in their homes through the requirement of a warrant.

The Bill of Rights was strongly influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason. Other precursors include English documents such as the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.

One of the many points of contention between Federalists, who advocated a strong national government, and Anti-Federalists, who wanted power to remain with state and local governments, was the Constitution’s lack of a bill of rights that would place specific limits on government power. Federalists argued that the Constitution did not need a bill of rights, because the people and the states kept any powers not given to the federal government. Anti-Federalists held that a bill of rights was necessary to safeguard individual liberty.

Madison, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, altered the Constitution’s text where he thought appropriate. However, several representatives, led by Roger Sherman, objected, saying that Congress had no authority to change the wording of the Constitution. Therefore, Madison’s changes were presented as a list of amendments that would follow Article VII.

The House approved 17 amendments. Of these, the Senate approved 12, which were sent to the states for approval in August 1789. Ten amendments were approved (or ratified). Virginia’s legislature was the final state legislature to ratify the amendments, approving them on December 15, 1791.

Bill of Rights

North Carolina's original copy of the Bill of Rights, stolen in 1865, had a long and checkered journey before it finally returned to the state in 2005. The Bill of Rights was created in 1789, in part to address the concerns of citizens (then, white males who were eligible to vote) about the extent of the government's powers under the Consitution and to help secure ratification of the Consitution by North Carolina and Delaware. Those two states had yet to ratify the document by the fall of 1789. The Bill of Rights became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Following passage of the amendments by Congress, President George Washington sent letters with handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights for ratification to the 11 existing states that had ratified the Constituion and to North Carolina and Delware, who had yet to do so. North Carolina ultimately ratified the Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, on November 21, 1789.

The state's copy of the Bill of Rights was stored, along with other important governmental papers, somewhere in the Capitol building in Raleigh. During the occupation of the city by U.S. General William Sherman’s army during April and May of 1865 at the end of the Civil War, a Union soldier stole it as a souvenir along with other papers. This unknown soldier took it home to Tippecanoe, Ohio (now Tipp City), and in 1866 sold it for $5.00 to a Charles A. Shotwell of Troy, Ohio.

In 1897, N.C. Secretary of State Dr. Cyrus Thompson read a news story about Shotwell indicating that he had the Bill of Rights on the wall of his Indianapolis, Indiana office. Thompson, working through the Indiana Secretary of State, tried and failed to persuade Shotwell to return the stolen document. An article on the subject of Shotwell's possession of the document and North Carolina's interest in its return ran in the Indianapolis News on October 1, 1897. The article included the heading that Shotwell was "Averse to Giving it Up" and that he "said it was his property, valuable to him as a relic and souvenir of the war, and that he certainly would not give it up on any 'demand,' no matter from whom such a demand might come."

In 1925, Charles I. Reid of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, representing Shotwell, contacted the North Carolina Historical Commission to sell it to the state. Robert B. House, secretary of the Commission, refused, responding emphatically that it was the rightful property of North Carolina: “title to it has never passed from… North Carolina to any individual." Both Shotwell and the Bill of Rights later disappeared.

The location of the document was then unknown for 70 years until Washington, D.C. attorney John L. Richardson, representing an unnamed person, offered to sell it to the state in 1995. North Carolina once again held fast to its principles and asserted it was the rightful owner and would not pay for stolen property. It later came to light that the unnamed person was Connecticut antiques dealer Wayne Pratt, who had appeared on the popular PBS television series Antiques Roadshow. Pratt had bought the document from Shotwell's heirs in 2000. In early 2002, Pratt tried to sell the Bill of Rights to the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. The Center contacted George Washington Unviersity's First Federal Congress Project to help verify the authenticity of the document. The Project subsequently authenticated the document as, indeed, North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a member of the Center’s board, contacted North Carolina Governor Mike F. Easley, proposing each state share the cost of the purchase. North Carolina refused the offer to share the purchase, once again asserting its rightful claim to the document. Governor Easley had state Attorney General Roy Cooper work with the U.S. Attorney's office in Raleigh to obtain the stolen document. The Federal Bureau of Investigation set up a “sting” operation in Philadelphia where agents finally seized the document on March 18, 2003.

A lengthy and drawn-out legal battle then began. While Pratt relinquished his claims to the document in federal court in September of 2003 to avoid criminal charges, Pratt’s partner, businessman Robert V. Matthews, continued to claim co-ownership of the document and demanded compensation. On January 23, 2004, Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered that the disputed document be returned to the State of North Carolina as a public record. He ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to keep custody of the document until the case was over.

On August 4, 2005, Judge Boyle awarded possession of the document to the State of North Carolina. Governor Mike Easley accepted the document, which was conserved, framed, and then placed in the vault of the State Archives. However, legal ownership of the document was still to be determined. Finally, on March 24, 2008, Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. issued a summary judgment order that ended all remaining claims to the document and declared North Carolina as the exclusive owner of its original copy of the Bill of Rights to the exclusion of all other claims.

Amendment Overview

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution were meant to be living, breathing documents. Even today, courts are constantly making decisions that affect what their implementation actually looks like. Here is just a general overview of what each right entails.

The First Amendment: Thought Liberties

Arguably the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment lays out basic liberties involved with thought, expression, and belief, and could largely be attributed to the Anti-Federalists.

Watch the video: The Story of the Bill of Rights (August 2022).