The First 10 Amendments to the Constitution

Why the First 10 Amendments to the Constitution Are Called the Bill of Rights

A copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is displayed at Christie's auction house
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The first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Those 10 amendments establish the most basic freedoms for Americans including the rights to worship how they want, speak how they want, and assembly and peaceably protest their government how they want. The amendments have also been subject to much interpretation since their adoption, particularly the right to carry a gun under the Second Amendment.

"A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference," said Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States.

The first 10 amendments were ratified in 1791.

History of the First 10 Amendments

Before the American Revolution, the original colonies were united under Articles of Confederation, which did not address creation of a central government. In 1787, founders called a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to build a structure for a new government. The resulting Constitution did not address the rights of individuals, which became a source of contention during the document's ratification.

The first 10 amendments were predated by the Magna Carta, signed in 1215 by King John to protect citizens against abuse of power by the King or Queen.

Likewise, the authors, led by James Madison, sought to limit the role of the central government. Virginia's Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason immediately after independence in 1776, served as a model for other state bills of rights as well as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Once drafted, the Bill of Rights was quickly ratified by the states. It only took six months for nine states to say yes - two short of the total needed. In December 1791, Virginia was the 11th state to ratify the first 10 amendments, making them part of the Constitution. Two other amendments failed ratification.

List of the First 10 Amendments

Amendment 1

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.

What it means: The First Amendment is, to many Americans, the most sacred of the first 10 amendments because it protects them from persecution over their religious beliefs and government sanctions against the expression of opinions, even those that are unpopular. The First Amendment also prevents the government from interfering with journalists' responsibility to serve as watchdogs.

Amendment 2

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.

What it means: The Second Amendment is one of the most cherished, and divisive, clauses in the Constitution. Advocates for the right of American to carry guns believe the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. Those who argue the United States should do more to regulate guns point to the phrase "well regulated." Gun-control opponents say the Second Amendment merely allows states to maintain militia organizations such as the National Guard.

Amendment 3

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.

What it means: This is one of the simplest and clearest amendments. It forbids the government from forcing private-property owners to house members of the military.

Amendment 4

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.

What it means: The Fourth Amendment protects the privacy of Americans by prohibiting the search and seizure of property without cause. "Its reach is indescribably broad: every one of the millions of arrests made annually is a Fourth Amendment event. So too is every search of every person or private area by a public official, whether a police officer, schoolteacher, probation officer, airport security agent, or corner crossing guard," writes the Heritage Foundation.

Amendment 5

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.

What it means: The most common use of the Fifth Amendment is the right to avoid incriminating oneself by refusing to answer questions at a criminal trial. The amendment also guarantees Americans' due process.

Amendment 6

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.

What it means: While this amendment seems clear, the Constitution doesn't actually define what a speedy trial is. It does, however, guarantee those accused of crimes a decision on guilt or innocence made by their peers in a public setting. That is an important distinction. Criminal trials in the United States take place in full public view, not behind closed doors, so they are fair and impartial and subject to judgement and scrutiny by others.

Amendment 7

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.

What it means: Even if certain crimes rise to the level of being prosecuted at the federal level, and not the state or local, defendants are still guaranteed a trial before a jury of their peers.

Amendment 8

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

What it means: This amendment protects those convicted of crimes from excessive jail time and capital punishment.

Amendment 9

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

What it means: This provision was meant as a guarantee that Americans hold rights outside of just those specified in the first 10 amendments. "Because it was impossible to enumerate all the rights of the people, a bill of rights might actually be construed to justify the government’s power to limit any liberties of the people that were not enumerated," states the Constitution Center. Thus the clarification that many other rights exist outside of the Bill of Rights. 

Amendment 10

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.

What it means: States are guaranteed any power not delegated to the U.S. government. Another way of explaining it: the federal government holds only those powers delegated to it in the Constitution.

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Gill, Kathy. "The First 10 Amendments to the Constitution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/bill-of-rights-in-the-constitution-3368311. Gill, Kathy. (2017, August 24). The First 10 Amendments to the Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bill-of-rights-in-the-constitution-3368311 Gill, Kathy. "The First 10 Amendments to the Constitution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bill-of-rights-in-the-constitution-3368311 (accessed November 20, 2017).