Bill of Rights Summary

Start Your Free Trial

Bill of Rights Summary

A little over one year after the US Constitution had been ratified, the Continental Congress met on March 4, 1789, in Federal Hall in New York City to draft a bill of fundamental rights for all Americans. The Continental Congress, made up of both Federalist and Anti-Federalist Founding Fathers, was divided along ideological lines about the construction of this bill. While Federalists hoped to create an entirely new Constitution, Anti-Federalists wanted to revise the 1781 Articles of Confederation and create a list of basic tenets for the nascent country. They believed that the inclusion of a bill of rights was vital to the Constitution. The addition of this bill alongside the already-ratified Constitution aimed to appease both sides of the divide. The Bill of Rights is composed of two parts: the preamble, which delineates the intentions of the bill, and the ten amendments, which establish the basic tenets and ideological underpinnings of the United States of America.

Download Bill of Rights Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Preamble

From March 1789 to July 1790, Congress met in New York City, one of its many meeting locations throughout its history.

The first paragraph of the preamble expresses the intentions behind the Bill of Rights. James Madison, the author of the document, writes that “a number of the States… expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added” to the Constitution. Madison is alluding to the sharp divide between states and between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, at the time the document was written. While some states signed the 1787 Constitution without hesitation, other states—namely Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York—only signed off after the Founding Fathers assured them that a Bill of Rights would be included in the Constitution. Similarly, many Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the US Constitution because they believed it was necessary to include a bill that outlined essential freedoms. Additionally, they wanted explicit measures in place to prevent the formation of a monarchy and to avert potential despotic “abuses” of power. Although Madison was a Federalist, he understood the need for compromise, and, alongside Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, he drafted the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights represented the compromise between two of the nation’s most divisive parties. As Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, he softened his Federalist stance in order to “ensure the beneficent ends” of the nation.

The second paragraph states that with two-thirds approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as three-fourths approval of state legislatures, a document becomes part of the Constitution.

When Madison first drafted the Bill of Rights, there were seventeen articles, all of which were passed by the House of Representatives. Of those seventeen, only twelve passed through the Senate, and only ten of those were ratified by the states. These became the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights.

The third paragraph explains the process for ratifying new amendments to the Constitution, pursuant to Article V. This article reiterates the second paragraph of the preamble, which states that a proposed amendment requires two thirds approval of both the House of Representatives and Senate and three-fourths approval of state legislatures to be included in the US Constitution.

The Ten Amendments

1. The First Amendment is perhaps the most recognizable of the ten amendments. The clauses include the following:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of press
  • Freedom of religion
  • Right to assemble
  • Right to petition
  • Right to express grievances

At its core, this amendment allows individuals to express themselves openly regardless of belief or religion, to speak without fear of incrimination, to assemble peacefully, and to complain freely according to democratic values.

2. During the American Revolution, independently run militias were vital to the colonists' victory over the British. Their success was in part due to the fact that these militiamen were allowed to keep and carry weapons, and thus were prepared to fight against the British. At the time the document was written, the Founding Fathers viewed the ability “to keep and bear arms” as one of the most intrinsic American rights. Today, the language of the Second Amendment suffers lengthy scrutiny. Some Americans interpret the text literally—that citizens have the right to carry weapons—while others believe the text is antiquated and no longer applies to contemporary life.

3. The Third Amendment has not withstood the test of time; even the American Bar Association considers it the “runt piglet” since it is the least litigated of all the amendments. Written as a reaction to the events of the American Revolution, this amendment states that it is unlawful to keep soldiers “quartered in any house” without the owner’s consent.

4. The Fourth Amendment ensures protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It holds that law enforcement agents must procure warrants establishing “probable cause” in order to search a person or their property. This article was a response to the British practice of liberally searching individuals or infiltrating homes during the American Revolution, often without providing adequate reasoning.

5. The Fifth Amendment includes numerous provisions:

  • Individuals accused of serious “capital” offenses have the right to trial by a grand jury.
  • Individuals may not face “double jeopardy,” meaning that they may not be retried for the same crime after being acquitted.
  • Individuals have the right to avoid self-incrimination, more colloquially known as “pleading the fifth.”
  • Individuals cannot be deprived of rights without first undergoing “due process,” or the judicial procedures mandated by law.
  • Private property cannot be seized without “just compensation.”

6. The Sixth Amendment also includes numerous provisions. Individuals accused of a crime

  • have the right to a “speedy” trial;
  • have the right to a “public” trial;
  • have the right to an “impartial jury” drawn from the area in which the crime was committed;
  • have the right to “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”;
  • have the right to choose witnesses favorable to their case;
  • have the right to “Assistance of Counsel,” meaning a public defender.

This amendment is a response to how the British treated colonists during the American Revolution. The British frequently subjected colonists to unfair and arduous trials. They did not provide trials by jury, did not provide counsel, and frequently sent colonists back to Britain for “mock trials” instead of trying them in the area the crime was committed. 

7. The Seventh Amendment extends the right to a trial by jury for common law cases. The phrase “common law” refers to property law and other civil issues. Madison drafted this amendment because many Anti-Federalists worried that judges might use their powers to control trial outcomes in civil cases. The provisions of this amendment state the following:

  • In cases where the contested amount exceeds “twenty dollars,” the courts will retain a trial by jury.
  • A case tried by a jury cannot be re-examined or overturned in another court.

8. The Eighth Amendment is three pronged:

  • No excessive bail
  • No excessive fines
  • No cruel and unusual punishment

9. Federalists feared that by naming certain rights in the Constitution, the ones not listed would be rendered invalid. The Ninth Amendment ensures that all the rights delineated in the Constitution hold equal value and that rights not mentioned in the Constitution are still “retained by the people.” No single right is meant to “deny or disparage” any other.

10. The Tenth Amendment assuaged Anti-Federalist fears that a powerful and centralized federal government would become tyrannical. This article dictates that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” should be delegated to the States or to the people. In this manner, the Bill of Rights struck a compromise between Federalist and Anti-Federalist desires. The federal government does not hold unrestricted power; instead, issues beyond the scope of the federal government are transferred to the state or individual level.