The Bill of Rights is the first ten Amendments in the United States Constitution. Adopted in 1777, the original Constitution was limited in detailing the rights of the individual American, opting instead to primarily focus on establishing the rights and powers of an effective Federal Government. Individual freedoms were initially governed by varying State Constitutions. Many Founding Fathers were skeptics over outlining individual rights in the U.S. Constitution. Before understanding the Bill of Rights and the freedoms it exhibits, one must acknowledge its origins and the modification required for its inception. Following the Revolutionary War, the United States created the Articles of Confederation, which legally established America as a sovereign nation. Created in November of 1777, the Articles of Confederation was essentially the framework upon which the United States and its Federal Government was built. During this time of transition, the Founding Fathers constantly tweaked the Constitution. The ratification process ultimately lasted fifteen years; the critical argument responsible for extending the renovation revolved around the relationship between the Federal Government, the State governments, and the individual American.
The nation was under a fervent debate. “Federalists” wanted a more powerful central government to ensure a stable tax system, while “Anti-Federalists” felt that a powerful government would eventually lead to an autocracy. A true equilibrium was never reached and the Articles of Confederation failed at establishing a harmonic relationship between the Federal and State governments. State representatives and the Founding Fathers decided to overhaul the Articles, and instead adopt a Constitution in 1787. The Constitution sought to create a Republic as defined by the Age of Enlightenment or Western Philosophy. The Constitution aimed to question the traditional institutions displaced by a monarchy and quell the disputes between the Federal and State governments.
Although the Constitution was seen as a great improvement to its predecessors, debate still existed in regards to the rights of the American citizen. During George Washington’s first presidency, opponents routinely questioned the limitations of the individual, citing Britain as an example of a government which was simply too powerful. State leaders believed that the powers given to the Government were imbalanced; the Constitution would open itself to tyranny and a subsequent revolt by the citizens would take place. To alleviate the tension imposed, an establishment of individual rights was greatly needed. On September 25, 1789, during the first Congressional meeting in United States history, the rights for the American citizen were officially introduced. Led by James Madison, the original rights outlined in 1789 were unanimously passed in 1791 under the Bill of Rights. The initial proposal included 12 Amendments, or rights, for the individual American, but was later contracted to ten in 1791. The Bill of Rights unequivocally distributed rights to the American individual. Congress or the Federal Government cannot supersede the freedoms outlined in the first 10 Amendments.
The individual freedoms detailed in the Bill of Rights are summarized below for clarity purposes:
1st Amendment: Congress will not prohibit the free exercise of religion or make a law on the establishment of a dominant practice. An individual also has a freedom of speech which also extends to the press.
2nd Amendment: Perhaps the most controversial of Amendments. An individual or militia has the right to bear arms (debate exists over the 2nd Amendment because of the violent nature of firearms).
3rd Amendment: Protection of quartering troops. A soldier is not allowed to be stationed in an owner’s home without consent.
4th Amendment: Protection from search and seizure. An individual will not be subject to random searches of private property by Government agents unless a warrant or reasonable cause is produced.
5th Amendment: Outlines the due process of law. In a criminal case, a person shall not be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of liberty, life, or property.
6th Amendment: All individuals will be afforded the right to a fair, speedy, and public trial by an impartial jury. All individuals will also be afforded the right to a lawyer or legal assistance for defense.
7th Amendment: Common lawsuits or civil matters will also be presided by a jury or court.
8th Amendment: Excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited.
9th Amendment: Outlines a series of rights not specifically listed in the Constitution.
10th Amendment: Balances out the governing power between states and the Federal Government. Outlines the powers of states and people and awards governing rights to jurisdictions.
The Bill of Rights was spawned through the debate between Anti-Federalists and Federalists. Individualism and the prospect of a free nation were the fundamental points for which the Bill of Rights was created. The Bill of Rights outlined freedoms given to individual Americans on a Federal level, but was strongly influenced by pre-written Constitutions of varying states.
For instance, the Virginia Declaration of Rights (written by James Madison) was an eminent doctrine during the Revolution and offered equal rights to all citizens. Although influenced by State governments, the Bill of Rights applies specifically to the Federal Government. Madison and other leaders attempted to modify the Amendments so they could limit the power of State governments, but this proposal was rejected by Congress, therefore solely appointing the Bill of Rights as a Federal guideline. In order for the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights to be ratified, three quarters or majority of the states had to approve. The timeline varies in regards to the individual State ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but over the 15 years or so of deliberation and construction, a majority was eventually reached. When the states approved such legislation the power between the Federal Government, State governments, and individual American were finally rendered succinct.