What is the Bill of Rights?
After the leaders of the new United States wrote the Constitution, they had to get the thirteen states to agree to it. Some of the states didn’t want to agree unless they could add some specific rights for individual people.
So in 1791 the United States added ten new rights to the Constitution. They got the idea for some of these rights from the Magna Carta and the British Bill of Rights. Other ideas came from the Iroquois Confederacy and from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
We call this list of rights the Bill of Rights. It’s the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.
These are the ten individual rights that are in the Bill of Rights, in simpler words:
- The United States Congress can’t make any law about your religion.They can’t stop you from practicing your religion. They can’t keep you from saying whatever you want. They can’t stop you from publishing whatever you want (like in a newspaper or a book). And Congress can’t stop you from meeting peacefully for a demonstration to ask the government to change something.
- Congress can’t stop people from having and carrying weapons, because we need to be able to defend ourselves.
- You don’t have to let soldiers live in your house, except if there is a war. Even then, you only have to if the United States Congress has passed a law about it.
- Nobody from the government can search your body, or your house, or your papers and things, unless they can prove to a judge that they have a good reason to think you have committed a crime.
- You can’t be tried for any serious crime without a Grand Jury meeting first to decide whether there’s enough evidence for a trial. And if the jury decides you are innocent, the government can’t try again with another jury. You don’t have to say anything at your trial. You can’t be killed, or put in jail, or fined, unless you were convicted of a crime by a jury. And the government can’t take your house or your farm or anything that is yours, unless the government pays for it.
- If you’re arrested, you have a right to have your trial pretty soon, and the government can’t keep you in jail without trying you. The trial has to be public, so everyone knows what is happening. The case has to be decided by a jury of ordinary people from your area. You have the right to know what you are accused of. You have the right to see and hear the people who are witnesses against you. The government has to help you find the witnesses on your side. And the government has to get a lawyer to help you.
- You also have the right to a jury when it is a civil case. (That’s a law case between two people rather than between you and the government).
- The government can’t make you pay more than is reasonable in bail (to stay out of jail while you’re waiting for your trial) or in fines. And the government can’t order you to have cruel or unusual punishments (like torture) even if you are convicted of a crime.
- Just because these rights are listed in the Constitution doesn’t mean that you don’t have other rights too.
- Anything that the Constitution doesn’t say that Congress can do should be left up to the states, or to the people.
Where did the ideas in the Bill of Rights come from?
The people who wrote these first ten amendments to the Constitution had reasons for writing them. It’s not always clear to us now what those reasons were. Here are some explanations:
The background of the First Amendment
Freedom of religion
Freedom of religion comes first because it was the most basic for the Constitution’s writers. Many of their grandfathers or grandmothers were Puritans or Quakers who had been jailed or killed in England for their religion. Their children left England for America in order to get away from religious persecution and be able to worship God however they wanted.
The history of freedom of religion
This wasn’t the first time people had tried to write laws about freedom of religion. The Iranian king of kings, Cyrus the Great, granted freedom of religion to the Persian Empire on the Cyrus Cylinder in 539 BC. The Roman Emperor Constantine granted freedom of religion to Christians in 313 AD, with the Edict of Milan. Henry IV in France granted freedom of religion to Protestants in 1598, with the Edict of Nantes.
The history of religious persecution
But other rulers had taken that freedom away. The Roman emperor Diocletian killed Christians about 300 AD. The Iranian ruler Khosrau killed many Mazdakites around 500 AD. Ferdinand and Isabella threw the Jews out of Spain and Portugal in the 1400s AD. China’s Emperor Wuzong killed thousands of Buddhists about 850 AD. Queen Mary killed many Protestants in England in the 1500s, and then Queen Elizabeth killed many Catholics. Louis XIV revoked (took back) the Edict of Nantes in 1685, because he wanted everyone in France to have the same religion.
The men who wrote the Bill of Rights wanted to make it very, very hard to change this law.
Freedom of speech and of the press
Freedom of speech had a much shorter history before the Constitution. In 1689, England’s Bill of Rights said that anyone could say whatever they thought in meetings of Parliament (though not outside of Parliament!). In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man pushed this further, saying that everybody had the right to say, write, and print freely whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, unless there was a specific law preventing it.
Freedom of Assembly
The Founders were thinking of the trial of William Penn in 1670, when Penn was charged with illegal assembly for leading a religious meeting of Quakers in London. A jury acquitted Penn, but the Founders wanted to protect religious freedom and the right to organize in all kinds of ways.
Freedom of Petition
The English Bill of Rights, in 1689, said that people had the right to petition the King of England when they wanted something changed. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in 1789, said that people had the right to fight back against oppression.
The background of the Second Amendment
There was a long tradition in English law that free people had a right to keep and bear arms (weapons). The English Bill of Rights, in 1689, also insisted on this right, because the King had recently taken the right away from Protestants. So for them, and for the Framers, this was a question of treating all religions equally. The Framers also saw the Second Amendment as a way for the states to defend themselves against the power of the federal government.
The background of the Third Amendment
The British government had been commanding Americans to let soldiers live in their houses, just to have somewhere to put them. Americans hated that, so they made a rule against it. The first rule like this one had been in the British Petition of Right, in 1628. There’s also a similar rule in the British Bill of Rights from 1689 that the government can’t keep a standing army when there’s no war unless Parliament authorizes it.
The background of the Fifth Amendment
The right to keep your property
The Cyrus Cylinder, in 539 BC, assured people in the Persian Empire that Cyrus would not let anyone take anyone’s things or their land by force or without paying for them. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man says that too.
The right not to be punished unless you have been convicted of a crime
In 1628, the British Petition of Right said that you could not be fined unless you were convicted of a crime. The Petition of Right and the British Habeas Corpus act of 1679 both said that nobody could be arrested or put in jail unless they were accused of a crime. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man said the same thing. So the Fifth Amendment says those things too.
The background of the Sixth Amendment
This one is also rooted in the British Petition of Right from 1628.
The background of the Seventh Amendment
The British Petition of Right from 1628.
The background of the Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment is pretty much straight out of the British Bill of Rights from 1689. That also said you couldn’t charge too much bail, or make people pay huge fines, or punish people in cruel or unusual ways.
The background of the Tenth Amendment
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man says that everything is allowed unless there is a specific law preventing it.
How does the Bill of Rights work today?
Today, the United States Supreme Court interprets the Bill of Rights and tells us how we should understand it in specific cases. Sometimes those interpretations change, because our ideas about what is fair change over time, and new problems come up that nobody ever thought of before. Here are some examples of recent arguments over the Bill of Rights.
Freedom of religion: People have been arguing about whether schools can encourage children to pray in school. We have to balance the freedom of teachers and coaches – and of the students themselves – to talk about religion, with the freedom of other students, teachers, and coaches not to be forced into any religious activity they didn’t choose.
Freedom of speech: People have been arguing about whether people have a right to speak in public if their speech is hateful. What if they are saying that some people are not as good as other people? What if they are saying that some people should be enslaved, or that they should be killed? Does freedom of speech extend to them, too? And does it restrict their freedom of speech if public universities refuse to let them speak on campus, even if they could speak freely in other places?
Freedom of assembly: People have been arguing about whether crowds of people can protest whenever they want, or only if they have a permit. Can the government limit permits so that protests can only take place far away from the event they are protesting? Can it limit permits so that protests can only take place inside tall chain-link fences? What if the protest blocks traffic, or goes on for weeks? What if the protesters are children?
Freedom to petition: A recent example of the freedom to petition is that the President blocked people from his Twitter account. A judge said he had to unblock those people, because they had a right to know what he was saying, and a right to be able to write to the President, and to the people who were writing to him, equally with other people.
The right to bear arms: People have been discussing laws meant to keep people from getting guns. If fewer people had guns, we’d probably have fewer school shootings and just generally fewer people being shot. On the other hand, many people feel safer with a gun in their house, and want to keep their guns.
Searching people: Does the government need a warrant to search your cellphone and read your text messages? Can they use your cellphone records to get a list of all the places you have been going to and all the people you have called? Can they get your bank account information? Is that what the Fourth Amendment intended?
Excessive bail: Can the government keep people in jail while they’re waiting for their trial just because they are too poor to pay bail? Isn’t that pretty hard on poor people, while rich people get to stay home? It makes people lose their jobs, and their kids, just from being accused of a crime, without being convicted. How does that go with “innocent until proven guilty”?
What basic rights are NOT in the Bill of Rights?
The men who wrote the Bill of Rights left out some things they must have thought about putting in, that other people had put into earlier lists of rights, or that people had asked for.
The rights of women
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen applied only to men. Abigail Adams and other women had asked to have the rights of women defined in the Constitution. But the Bill of Rights did not make women equal citizens with men.
The right to control your own body
The Cyrus Cylinder says that it is wrong to hold another person as a slave, and it bans any kind of unpaid, forced labor. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man says that all men are born free, and have a right to liberty; it says that the law has to apply the same way to everybody. But the United States’ Bill of Rights allowed Americans to enslave other people.
The right to progressive taxation
The Declaration of the Rights of Man said that everybody should pay taxes, but poor people should pay less and rich people should pay more. And that people had the right to know what their taxes were paying for, and how much was being collected.
The right to live wherever you want
The Cyrus Cylinder says that people can live and work wherever they want without special permission.