The Bill of Rights make up the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments protect individual liberties by placing limits on the power of the government.
Summary of the Bill of Rights
The original Constitution of the United States established the basic foundations of a new federal government and defined relationships between that new government and the individual states. Notably absent from the document were major provisions dealing with the relationship between the new government and individual citizens. Proposals at the Constitutional Convention for guaranteeing the rights of individual citizens were defeated each time they were introduced. During the ratification process, however, the framers of the Constitution discovered that there was strong popular sentiment for a bill of rights. Five of the first eleven states to ratify the Constitution requested or demanded that a bill of rights be added to the document. In response, James Madison presented a draft proposal to Congress on June 8, 1789, for amending the Constitution to include a bill of rights. On September 25, 1789, Congress proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution and sent them to the states for ratification. The first two proposed amendments, which had nothing to do with the rights of U.S. citizens, were defeated. The last 10 amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified when Virginia became the eleventh state to vote for approval, on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights guarantees basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Bill of Rights has become one of the more cherished products of the Founding Fathers, and it remains a cornerstone of the Republic.
This lithograph shows an interior view of the House of Representatives in session. Image Source: Library of Congress.
The Bill of Rights — Quick Facts
Constitutional Convention Debates the Bill of Rights
- On August 20, 1787, Charles Pinckney submitted a proposal to the Committee on Detail at the Constitutional Convention to include several personal rights guarantees but the Committee did not adopt any of Pinckney’s recommendations.
- On September 12, 1787, following a brief debate, delegates at the Constitutional Convention rejected proposals to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
The States Ask for the Bill of Rights
- The ratifying conventions of five states that ratified the Constitution (Massachusetts, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York) requested or demanded that a bill of rights be added to the document
- Rhode Island did not ratify the Constitution until after the first Congress approved a proposal for the Bill of Rights.
The House of Representatives Debates the Bill of Rights
- On June 8, 1789, James Madison presented a draft proposal in Congress for a Bill of Rights.
- The House of Representatives delayed its review of Madison’s draft because the members of the Federalist Party saw the Bill of Rights as restricting the power of the Federal Government. Some of the Federalists argued the Constitution was new and untested, and there was no need to rush to make changes.
- The House decided to set up a select committee to review Madison’s proposal.
The Committee of Eleven
The House selected eleven members who took the proposal and turned it into a list of specific changes to the Constitution that were recommended. The members of the Committee of Eleven were:
- John Vining of Delaware
- James Madison of Virginia
- Abraham Baldwin of Georgia
- Roger Sherman of Connecticut
- Aedanus Burke of South Carolina
- Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire
- George Clymer of Pennsylvania
- Egbert Benson of New York
- Benjamin Goodhue of Massachusetts
- Elias Boudinot of New Jersey
- George Gale o Maryland
Congress Approves the Bill of Rights
- On September 25, 1789, Congress proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution and sent them to the states for ratification.
- The first two proposed amendments to the Constitution had nothing to do with the guaranteed rights of U.S. citizens and neither amendment was ratified.
- Of the first 12 amendments to the Constitution proposed by Congress, numbers 3 through 12 make up the Bill of Rights.
The States Ratify the Bill of Rights
- On October 2, 1789, President Washington sent each state a copy of the 12 amendments adopted by Congress, to be considered for amending the Constitution.
- On November 20, 1789, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights.
- When Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified the 10 amendments, making them a part of the U.S. Constitution.
The Bill of Rights — Interesting Facts
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 15 to be Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights — Primary Source
This transcript provides the complete, original text of the Bill of Rights, which makes up the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution.
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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
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.