The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are also frequently called the Bill of Rights, and they set out a variety of freedoms that citizens and residents of the United States enjoy. Their status as “amendments” means that they were written after the Constitution and they aren’t part of that document’s body. They are additions that lawmakers formally agreed to through a process called “ratification,” and they are just as enforceable as the original document. All ten were ratified at the same time in 1791. They are important for many different reasons, but securing individual freedoms and liberties is one of their primary goals. All are still very much in force today.
When They Were Introduced
The Bill of Rights was formally ratified by the United States Congress on December 15, 1791. The amendments were introduced and debated long before this, though; James Madison, then a representative from Virginia but later to become to be the country’s fourth president, is credited with proposing them initially. Madison is actually thought to have proposed the bill as 12 separate “articles,” and his suggestion at first was that they be introduced into the main Constitution. This is not ultimately what the Congress decided to do. The ideas were discussed in both the House and the Senate over the span of more than a year, and were ultimately modified into ten individual amendments that together comprised a separate, but essential and binding, part of the Constitution.
Each amendment focuses on some aspect of liberty and freedom. In part, this is why the ten are called the Bill of Rights — they set out and define the rights of the people of the United States. The amendments also set important limits on the power of the Congress and the government. When the United States was just starting out, there were a number of people, lawmakers included, who were worried about the dangers of unchecked government power, and who were concerned that the new Constitution didn’t do enough to protect individual privacy, liberty, and freedom. These first amendments largely sought to calm those fears.
There are a number of reasons why the first ten amendments are important. Aside from the liberties they guarantee, they also set an important precedent and model when it comes to the role of Congress to make and enact laws, as well as the fluid nature of the Constitution. Their ratification was the first time that the nation’s lawmakers came together to discuss how laws could be reinterpreted over time, and how changes in cultural expectations and understandings could influence the strict parameters of the Constitution.
The amendments begin with a preamble that sets out the goals and intent of what it to follow. The full text is reprinted below.
Preamble: The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added, and as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution;
Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two-thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States; all or any of which articles, when ratified by three-fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the said Constitution, namely:
Amendment I: 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.
Amendment II: 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.
Amendment III: 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.
Amendment IV: 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.
Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII: 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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X: 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.