The Bill of Rights

When it comes to understanding the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, a basic knowledge of the Bill of Rights is essential. This momentous document was drafted to protect the rights of private citizens by regulating the power of the government.

The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1789 as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, when some influential politicians and public figures—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others—pointed out that the original Constitution failed to list some of the most essential human rights. In the wake of the British tyranny that had occurred during the Revolution, there was a widespread concern of government oppression. At Jefferson's request, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights to detail the specific rights that should be afforded to all citizens. The Bill was passed into law by a majority vote of Congress.

The 10 Amendments

The Bill of Rights is accompanied by a list of 10 amendments, which have become some of the most widely known laws of the Constitution:

First Amendment - Freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; right to petition

This famous civil right ensures that all citizens are free to express themselves in any manner, whether it's through writings, speech, or religious worship. Thomas Jefferson was the main proponent of the First Amendment, which includes the following clause:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Second Amendment – Right to keep and bear arms

One of the most controversial of the 10 amendments, this right declares that "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Still disgruntled by the oppression of the British army, the founding fathers preferred to give citizens the weaponry to protect themselves rather than establish a government-sanctioned military.

In the modern courts, the Second Amendment is the only one that has never been used to effectively dispute any legislation, most likely due to confusion about what exactly it entails.

Third Amendment: Protecting from quartering of troops

This amendment states that:

"No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law."

Still fresh in Americans' minds were the years before and during the American Revolution, when they were forced to share their private homes with British soldiers.

Fourth Amendment – Protection from unreasonable search and seizure

During the American Revolution, the British government granted warrants that allowed their officials to search any property and seize all contents within. To prevent a reoccurrence, the founding fathers drafted the Fourth Amendment, which stated:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Fifth Amendment – Due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, eminent domain

One of the most famous and frequently enforced civil rights, the Fifth Amendment includes several important clauses that ensure citizens a fair trial, among other protections:

  • Indictment by a Grand Jury: This Fifth Amendment clause states that all citizens must first be indicted by a grand jury before they can be tried for a serious crime.
  • Double Jeopardy: This section declares that no-one can be re-prosecuted for the same crime once they have been acquitted. There are some exceptions to this, such as mistrials, hung juries, and trial fraud.
  • Pleading the Fifth: One of the most widely known components of the Fifth Amendment, this grants citizens the right to refuse to answer questions or provide information that could incriminate them.
  • The Miranda Rule: This popular clause states that all law enforcement officials must recite a suspect's rights before arresting them. Often featured on crime TV shows and movies, this well-known statement begins with the words "You have the right to remain silent…"
  • Property Rights and the Takings Clause: The last section of the Fifth Amendment, also referred to as the "takings clause," states that a citizen's property cannot be seized by the government without undue cause.

Sixth Amendment – Trial by jury and rights of the accused; Confrontation Clause, speedy trial, public trial, right to counsel

This clause includes the right to a speedy trial (minimizing the amount of time a suspect spends in prison prior to being tried), the right to a public trial (preventing any devious legal maneuvering), and the right to an impartial jury (ensuring that jurors don't enter into a trial with preconceived notions or biases).

Seventh Amendment – Civil trial by jury

This amendment requires that a jury trial be held for all civil lawsuits where the plaintiff seeks the awarding of monetary damages:

"In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."

Eighth Amendment – Prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment

This clause states that for all trials, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to give defendants ample opportunity to prepare their cases for trial. There are exceptions to the reasonable bail clause, such as when a very serious or violent crime has been committed and the defendant may pose a danger to themselves or to others.

Ninth Amendment – Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights

This blanket clause addressed the original concern that by citing a list of specific civil rights, the government would be free to violate any rights that were not explicitly included.

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Its ambiguity leaves the Ninth Amendment open to many different interpretations, although most courts of law have used it to protect laws not overtly stated in the Constitution.

Tenth Amendment – Powers of states and people

The final amendment states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Under this amendment, the Bill of Rights applied only on the Federal level, with each state having its own individual constitution. Later, the Fourteenth Amendment declared that the Bill of Rights applied to all states, reducing the scope of the Tenth Amendment.

If you feel that your civil rights have been violated, speak with a qualified attorney who can help with your situation.
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