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 Antifederalists complained that the Constitution didn’t specifically protect the rights of the people from the government. The Federalists didn’t think it was necessary and worried that protecting a few rights might even do more harm than good if the government violated other rights. The compromise was that the Constitution would be ratified as it was, then the Bill of Rights would be added as soon as the new Congress could get together and work it out.
And Then There Were Ten
The first draft sent by the House of Representatives 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 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.