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Document Start & Index    Return to Library

The Bill of Rights, so-called, encompasses the first ten amendments to the Constitution, adopted collectively in 1791. Their adoption followed serious concerns - and in some States the condition upon which the Constitution was ratified - that there was no clear statement of individual and collective rights which would be held as sacred by the new central government. This omission was at least partly intentional, as enumerated rights can be interpreted to be exclusive - that there are no others beyond those mentioned. This fear supported the significant resistance to a bill of rights, and led to the inclusion of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

James Madison, the prime mover behind getting the Bill finally assembled and passed, lost his favorite amendment in the final Congressional debate -- it would have bound the states to the same freedoms guaranteed by the Federal government in the First Amendment. That issue was effectively resolved by the Fourteenth Amendment 80 years later, though it would take the courts until well into the twentieth century to put the Fourteenth into action.

Interestingly, when the Confederate States drafted their own Constitution in 1861, they did not create a matching Bill of Rights, despite their reverence for the United States Constitution. What they did instead was to incorporate the federal Ninth and Tenth Amendments directly into Article VI of their Constitution, guaranteeing -- albeit not to their unfortunate slaves -- personal rights in the broadest possible sense.

The Bill is a symphony of simplicity, considering the massive significance of the freedoms it guaranteed at a time when such guarantees were almost unheard of, and in view of the ensuing two-hundred-year tug of war among disparate interpretations of what should simply say "leave us be!"

[The brief Amendment titles are not official, but are either the common usage, where applicable, or the Editors'.]

For the later Amendments, click the link.

Got a favorite historical document? Use the  Library comment link  to let us know - we'll look into it.


I - Personal Freedom

II - Right to Bear Arms

III - Quartering of Troops

IV - Unreasonable Search & Seizure

V - Right to Due Process

VI - Rights of the Accused

VII - Right to Trial by Jury

VIII - Bail & Punishment

IX - Protection of Rights Not Mentioned

X - Limitations on Federal Power

Amendment I

[Personal Freedom]

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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

[Right to Bear Arms]

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

[Quartering of Troops]

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

[Unreasonable Search and Seizure]

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

[Due Process; Freedom from Self-Incrimination; Rights of Property-Holders]

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

[Rights of the Accused]

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

[Trial by Jury in Civil Cases]

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 rexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of common law.

Amendment VIII

[Bail and Punishment]

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

Amendment IX

[Protection of Rights Not Mentioned]

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

Amendment X

[Limitation of Federal Powers]

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.

Got a favorite historical document? Use the  Library comment link  to let us know - we'll look into it.

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