Summary of The Bill of Rights


As George Washington was inaugurated as America's first president and the new nation set about to establish a strong government, memories of civil rights violations during the colonial period were still vivid. However, there were very few basic rights included in the draft constitution submitted to the states for ratification.

A number of prominent Americans were alarmed at the omission of individual liberties in the proposed constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, wrote James Madison that he was concerned about "the omission of a bill of rights....providing clearly....for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and protection against standing armies." Aware of the lack of these provisions, George Washington urged Congress in his first inaugural address to propose amendments that offered "a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for public harmony."

Fears on the part of the colonists were expressed in a number of states regarding the establishment of a new federal government. Concern particularly was in the area of government encroachment of individual rights. Several of the states ratified the Constitution on the condition that one of the first orders of business of the new government was to construct a Bill of Rights. The plain and evident intent was to place restrictions upon the federal government because public opinion at the time asserted the federal government to be too strong. The Anti-Federalists wanted something to protect them from the power of the new federal government. The first ten amendments to the Constitution fulfilled this promise.

Congress responded by submitting Amendments to the Constitution providing for essential civil liberties. They were officially proposed in 1789. Of the original twelve, Articles 3-12 were ratified. Accordingly, in 1791 these articles became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.....known collectively as The Bill of Rights. They are summarized here. Not in the original order.

1) The First Amendment to the Constitution contains the most fundamental guarantees of a democratic system. Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition are guaranteed here. Cases involving these freedoms are numerous in the Twentieth Century. Political protest, the right to disagree, publication of documents, praying in schools, saluting the flag-- all of these controversies are based on the First Amendment.

2) Amendment II refers to "the rights of the people to keep and bear arms." This amendment is the basis for arguments centering on gun control laws.

3) The Third Amendment relates to quartering soldiers in homes. It has not been an issue in the Twentieth Century.

4) Amendments four through eight generally relate to due process of law. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures by government.

5) The Fifth Amendment contains specific guarantees against double jeopardy and self-incrimination. It also provides for indictment by grand jury in a federal case, just compensation for private property taken for a public purpose, and a fair procedure before one loses his/her life, liberty or property.

6) The Sixth Amendment contains the essence of a fair trial, including provisions guaranteeing a speedy and public trial, an impartial jury, the right to be informed of charges against oneself, the opportunity for defense counsel to confront witnesses against the accused, procedures to require testimony on behalf of the accused, and the right to counsel.

7) The Seventh Amendment guarantees trial by jury in civil cases whose value exceeds $20.00. This dollar figure has been rendered meaningless.

8) The Eighth Amendment protects against excessive bail or fines and prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Arguments over conditions in jails and capital punishment rest on this amendment.
Standing alone, the general guarantee of due process of Amendments four through eight applies only to the federal government. Through judicial interpretation of the Bill of Rights over time, most of the procedural and individual rights have been interpreted to apply to state and local government as well.

9) The Ninth Amendment retains for the people any rights that were not specifically listed. This amendment is cited by the Supreme Court as a basis for the right of privacy.

10) The Tenth Amendment defines the federal system and gives the remaining powers to state governments. The Tenth Amendment is critical to the arguments over "states rights."
Several amendments relate directly to the Presidency:

12) The Twelfth Amendment (1804) revises the method of electing the President described in Article II of the Constitution. It specifies the format of the electoral college which is still used today and continues to be debated.

22) The 22nd Amendment (1951) limits the President to two terms of office.

25) The 25th Amendment (1967) provides succession in the event of presidential disability and vice-presidential vacancies.

20) Amendment 20 (1933) changes the time of the President's term to begin on January 20. It also provides for Senators and Representatives terms to begin on January 3.
A number of the amendments are concerned with broadening the voter base. Prohibitions on voting because of race, sex and age were eliminated gradually.

15) The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) gives black males the right to vote.

19) The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) includes women.

26) The 26th Amendment (1971) extend the right to vote to all citizens at age 18.

27) The 27th amendment requires an intervening national congressional election before an increase in Congressional compensation occurs. (1992).

A device to disenfranchise poor Americans was the use of a poll tax.

24) The 24th Amendment (1962) forbids the leveling of the poll tax as a pre-condition for voting in national elections. This guarantee was interpreted to apply to state elections as well in 1966.
Citizens living in the Administrative District of Columbia were automatically disenfranchised in presidential elections in that they did not live in a state and therefore were not eligible for representation in the Electoral College.

23) The 23rd Amendment (1961) assigns 3 electors to the District of Columbia and thereby allows for Electoral college representation.

Provisions for selection of Senators of the United States was by the state legislatures in Article I of the Constitution.

17) The 17th Amendment (1913) provides for the direct election of Senators. This further broadened the election procedure.

The 13th (1865) and 14th (1868) Amendments are considered to be among the most important in the development of human rights.

13) The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

14) The Fourteenth Amendment is long and complex and has involved much litigation since its passage. Basically, it is concerned with defining the privileges and immunities of the United States citizens, with specifically guaranteeing due process and with equal protection of the law. Questions of discrimination by race and sex revolve around the Fourteenth Amendment. Treatment of illegal aliens by the states also centers on this Amendment.

Other amendments to the Constitution are as follows:

11) The Eleventh Amendment (1794) prohibits citizens from suing a state.

16) The Sixteenth Amendment (1913) allows Congress to collect taxes on income and thereby established the federal income tax.

18, 21) The 18th Amendment (1919) prohibited the sale, manufacture, or transportation of intoxicating liquor in the United States. This amendment was repealed by the 21st amendment (1933).