After declaring independence from Britain in 1776 – and fighting a war to enforce it – the American colonists realized that their loose confederation of states wasn’t quite working as they had planned. So, after much debate and consideration, the United States Constitution was written and offered as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation. But there was something missing from the Constitution: It explained the structure of the government and explained what it could do, but it didn’t specify what the government couldn’t do – it didn’t guarantee individual rights. And so, the Bill of Rights was born.
Federalists and Antifederalists
Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States fit into one of two groups: The Federalists or the Antifederalists. The federalists wanted a stronger national government with weaker state governments, and the Antifederalists wanted the opposite.
The Federalists liked the proposed Constitution more or less as it was. Benjamin Franklin – one of the leading Federalists – said that he didn’t agree with everything in the Constitution, but he would sign it anyway because he didn’t figure he would ever agree with everything in such a document. When it came to protecting individual liberty, the Federalists felt that the checks and balances built into the Constitution would be enough to stop the government from turning tyrannical.
The Antifederalists actually preferred the Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution, as they wanted stronger states and a weaker federal government. They had several complaints with the Constitution, but their most successful was that there needed to be a Bill of Rights added to it. They worried that the Constitution itself wasn’t good enough to stop the government from becoming all-powerful in the lives of the people.
And Then There Were Ten
As is often the case in politics, a compromise was made. The Constitution was one state away from being ratified, and so the Federalists agreed that once the new Congress could meet, they would draft a Bill of Rights to amend the Constitution. So the Constitution was ratified without change, and Congress met and discussed the Bill of Rights.
The initial draft sent by the House to the Senate included 17 amendments. The Senate rejected this draft, though, and so the second attempt only included 12. While some of the original 17 were rejected, others were combined. For example, the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion were, in this first draft, two separate amendments. Of these 12 proposed amendments, ten were ratified.
The Rights of the People
The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law that affects the freedom of religion, speech, the press, or of the people to gather peacefully and petition the government.
The Second Amendment protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
The Third Amendment states that soldiers can’t take over a person’s home without the homeowner’s permission.
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable and unlawful search and seizure of property.
The Fifth Amendment ensures due process and says that a person can’t be made to witness against themselves when accused of a crime.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial by jury.
The Seventh Amendment allows trial by jury for certain civil disputes.
The Eighth Amendment protects against excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment says that just because some rights are named in the Bill of Rights doesn’t take away any other rights that might not have been named.
The Tenth Amendment states that all powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution or prohibited to the states belong to the states or the people. It exists to stop the government from taking on more power than it is supposed to have by using the justification that the Constitution doesn’t forbid it.