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What is the Bill of Rights?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The first ten amendments of the United States constitution are more commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they set out specific rights of American citizens in order to ensure that those rights are not infringed. It is modeled on many other similar documents, all of which owe their inception to the Magna Carta, which was written in England in 1215 CE. The Bill of Rights is considered to be an important part of the Constitution, and it is also an integral part of popular culture; most Americans, for example, know what someone means when he or she “pleads the fifth,” a reference to the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from self recrimination.

The Bill of Rights probably would not have existed at all were it not for the actions of the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists were strongly opposed to the Constitution, as they feared that the president could quickly become a king ruling over a disenfranchised people. Although the Constitution sets out a framework for American government, it does not provide any specific rights to citizens. While the definition of “citizen” in the 1700s only included white, property-owning men, the efforts undertaken by these men to protect themselves later helped women and people of color in their work to achieve equality.

When it became clear that the Constitution was going to be ratified despite the efforts of the Anti-Federalists, the men secured an agreement that a list of amendments would be attached to the Constitution and sent out for ratification. James Madison sat down to draft 12 amendments and, after cutting the first two, the Bill of Rights as it is now known was ratified.

This document sets many important precedents for American citizens, giving them the right to free speech and religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government. It also sets out the rules for due process of law to ensure that citizens are not tried for the same crime twice, punished unreasonably for crimes, or forced to incriminate themselves. In addition, it protected citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and restricted military takeover of private homes, a serious issue during the Revolution. The document also specified that civilian and military justice would use different codes and that powers not delegated to the federal government belonged to the states or the people.

As with any legal document, the Bill of Rights is subject to interpretation, as can be seen in the ongoing dispute over the content of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court of the United States is charged with interpreting and defending the Constitution, and the Congress does occasionally add amendments to the Constitution as it deems necessary. As of 2007, the most recent amendment was the 27th, “Compensation of Member of Congress.” In order for an amendment to pass, two-thirds of both houses must agree to it, or three-quarters of the states must ratify a proposed amendment as a group.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon938040 — On Mar 07, 2014

I wish we had this protection in the UK, where government trods on the people on a whim.

By anon301975 — On Nov 06, 2012

Sorry, A.D. not C.E. Why do you think the "Common Era" started right around the time Jesus was born? We have been measuring time according to the birth of Christ for a long time, Why switch to what people call the "Common Era"? People don't like the idea of God, that's why. Someday you will meet your Creator.

By anon144717 — On Jan 20, 2011

Thank you! This helped a lot. I learned more from this than from my actual class.

By anon142627 — On Jan 13, 2011

I really liked studying the bill of rights in school this year. this article helped me a lot with this topic.

By anon127646 — On Nov 16, 2010

i understand the bill of rights now that i have read this article!

By anon69660 — On Mar 09, 2010

The bill of rights is amazing.

By geekgirl — On Jan 12, 2010

oh i see. that makes sense. Thanks.

By rjohnson — On Feb 05, 2008

The Bill of Rights applies directly to the federal government only. Most of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights apply to the state and local governments as well, but only through the incorporation of those Amendments into the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Amendments in the Bill of Rights that do not apply to states and local governments are: the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, the 3rd Amendment right to not have a soldier quartered in a person's home, the 5th Amendment right to grand jury indictment in criminal cases, the 7th Amendment right to juries in civil cases, and the 8th Amendment right against excessive fines.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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