The Bill of Rights
On December 15, 1791, the new United States of America ratified the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, confirming the fundamental rights of its citizens. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of peaceful assembly and petition. Other amendments guarantee the rights of the people to form a “well-regulated militia,” to keep and bear arms, the rights to private property, fair treatment for accused criminals, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from self-incrimination, a speedy and impartial jury trial, and representation by counsel.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.
The Preamble to The Bill of Rights. [Providence]:Printed by Bennett Wheeler, . Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
The Bill of Rights draws influence and inspiration from the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), and various later efforts in England and America to expand fundamental rights. George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights formed the basis of the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights.
Mason (1725-92), a native of Fairfax County, Virginia, championed individual liberties throughout his life. In 1776, he drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a large part of Virginia’s state constitution. In 1787, as one of the most vocal members of the Constitutional Convention, Mason expressed great concern that assurances of individual liberties had not been incorporated into the Constitution, and, due to this concern and others, he elected not to sign the document.
The Bill of Rights answered Mason’s greatest concern and the concerns of many ratifying states. As a representative in the First Federal Congress, James Madison ushered seventeen amendments to the Constitution through the House of Representatives. These amendments were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789. The first two proposed amendments, concerning the number of constituents for each representative and the compensation of members of Congress, were not ratified.* By December 15, 1791, articles three through twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became known as the Bill of Rights.
The application of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution frequently fosters contention. The United States Supreme Court has the power to declare a law unconstitutional that it finds to come in conflict with the Bill of Rights, or any other part of the Constitution, when the constitutionality of the law arises in litigation. Thus, the amendments are frequently reinterpreted in fresh contexts and changing times.
*Note: The original second amendment proposed by the First Federal Congress dealt with the compensation of members of Congress. Although rejected at the time, it was eventually ratified on May 7, 1992, as the 27th Amendment.
- View the special presentation To Form a More Perfect Union in the collection Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 to learn about the history of the founding of America.
- Browse the Top Treasures section of the exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress to find the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This uniquely influential document was also used by James Madison in drawing up the Bill of Rights and the Marquis de Lafayette in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The exhibition also includes Madison’s copy of the proposed Bill of Rights.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains a wide variety of legislative materials related to the Bill of Rights. For example, on June 8, 1789, James Madison introduced his proposed amendments to the Constitution, which can be found in the Annals of Congress. Additional debate related to these proposed amendments can be located in this collection by searching on the words amendments constitution in the First Congress, 1789 to 1791.
- See the entry for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History web guide series.
- The James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859 consist of approximately 12,000 items captured in some 72,000 digital images. Search this collection to find documents concerning the Bill of Rights, including Madison’s notes for his speech on the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
- The Constitution is an organic document that has been amended particularly as rights have been extended to groups of citizens over time. See Today in History features on the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and the Nineteenth Amendment extending suffrage to women.
- The exhibition Creating the United States contains a section on the Bill of Rights, which includes letters, manuscripts, images, and political cartoons.
- Search Today in History on the terms free speech to learn more about this right as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Search on the terms Bill of Rights, Constitution, slavery, or civil rights for additional information.