The Bill of Rights, a Summary
Introduction to the Foundation of Human Rights
When the Constitution was being discussed by the founding fathers of the United States, they discovered a problem. The question was, "Is it enough to just expect the government to respect those "inalienable rights" we talked about in the Declaration of Independence? Or do we need to list out all of the rights available to citizens?"
It was concluded that it would be equally difficult to expect the government to simply leave citizens to their own desires (no government had ever been expected to do that before!) as to enumerate every single right an American citizen may have.
So, the founding fathers compromised. They decided to make a list of rights that were absolutely guaranteed and any additional rights are considered liberties unless a law is created in regard to them. Some of the rights on this list made it into the Amendments section of the US Constitution. That is why the first ten Amendments of the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.
It took a while for these Amendments to be ratified, but as of 1791the first ten Amendments of the Constitution have been in place.
The First Amendment is one of the most frequently cited lines of the founding governmental documents. It's really no wonder when one considers how much information is packed into only one sentence.
There are quite a few rights guaranteed by the language of the first amendment including:
- The right to free speech. One can have one's own opinion.
- The right to practice whatever religion one may choose or no religion at all.
- The separation of church and state: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."
- Freedom of the press. The government cannot censor the press.
- Freedom of assembly, which means that people have the right to gather to protest or otherwise.
- Right to petition. Simply put: you have the right to complain to the government.
This amendment is often at the center of debates about the government and whether or not these rights are being upheld.
The Second Amendment is also a relatively popular Amendment, especially gun owners. It is most often interpreted as the right to bear arms, but there are arguments over what the true meaning of this amendment is.
One interpretation is that people of the United States have the right to have weapons. The language of the amendment says "being necessary to the security of a free State..." and therefore can be interpreted as the government does not have the right to infringe upon the people's desire to keep the country free. Without this right, the people may not be able to fight against an unjust state.
Though not so much of a concern anymore, in times long past, armies would often require the people of a certain country to feed and house their soldiers. This could be in times of peace or in times of war and the people would have no recourse to reject these soldiers.
The founders looked at this practice as being rather detrimental to a free state, so the Third Amendment exists to make the practice of quartering troops illegal.
In the United States, citizens' homes cannot simply be ransacked at random, and that is because of the Fourth Amendment. The official interpretation is that people have the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
The people of the United States can still be searched, but officials must first obtain warrants.
Warrants are documents obtained from judges to give police the right to search certain property. In order for a warrant to be obtained, the police must first show that they have a good reason to search said property.
The Fifth Amendment addresses a few different issues having to do with court proceedings:
- Self-incrimination - a person has the right to not say anything that might get them into trouble.
- Eminent domain - at some point the government may want to take your property for public use. They cannot do that unless they pay you an acceptable amount in return.
- Double Jeopardy - You cannot be tried in court for the exact same crime twice.
- Due process - Everyone has the right to court proceedings. This is why lynching is illegal.
The Sixth Amendment is another one where a number of rights are enumerated:
- Trial rights - People have the right to a public trial, a speedy trial and a trial by jury.
- People who have been accused of crimes also have the right to have an attorney represent them and they have the right to see the person who is bearing witness against them.
Please also note that many of the rights in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments are also mentioned in the famous Miranda Rights.
In law, there is a difference between civil and criminal law. Criminal laws describe crimes against the state, such as murder or treason; whereas civil law describes crimes between citizens.
Lawsuits are an example of civil law, and the Seventh Amendment states that for suits over a matter greater than $20, the accused has the right to a jury. However, most people do not take advantage of this right.
The Eighth Amendment is a tricky bit of writing. The Amendment reads, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
The problem with this Amendment has to do with definitions. What is excessive bail? What is cruel punishment? What is unusual punishment?
Take for example the death penalty. It is not unusual because civilizations have imposed it since the birth of history and is still practiced in some places of the United States, but many states have still abolished it. Is it cruel? Which is crueler? Life in prison or the death penalty? Either way, the debate rages on.
Here, the Bill of Rights attempts to protect the rights not mentioned explicitly within the document. The Ninth Amendment recognizes that people have certain rights which cannot all be included within the Constitution.
The Tenth Amendment addresses the rights of the States. State governments have the right to make laws for their own people, provided that these laws do not interfere or contradict the laws of the federal government or the constitution.
The Bill of Rights Institute
The Actual Text of the Constitution
The Bill of Rights
The Rest of the Amendments, While Not as famous, they Are No Less Important
Learn More About the Authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights