Bill of Rights, U.S.

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Bill of Rights, U.S.


The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. The guarantees of the Bill of Rights include freedom of religion, the rights of expression and association, the right to privacy, the right to due process, and freedom from unjust restraint or trial and from cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Bill of Rights has served as a model for other nations in the development of their own constitutions.

The U.S. Constitution was shaped in large part by compromises between Federalists who advocated a strong, centralized government, and Anti-Federalists who believed that the balance of power should favor the states. One of these compromises involved the adoption of a bill of rightsan enumeration of the fundamental and inalienable rights of citizens.

A proposal to include a bill of rights was rejected by the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Federalists believed that a bill of rights was unnecessary since the government possessed only those powers enumerated in the Constitution. They asserted that state constitutions protected individual rights and that the federal Constitution did not repeal those protections. The Federalists also feared that a listing of specific rights would endanger rights that were not listed. Not persuaded by these arguments, some Anti-Federalists withheld their signatures from the final document because of the absence of a bill of rights. Others proposed that a second constitutional convention be held to draft a bill of rights.

At state conventions to consider ratification of the Constitution, opposition focused on the failure to include a bill of rights. Anti-Federalists asserted that the Constitution lacked sufficient safeguards for individuals against abuses of power by the federal government, and they pushed to postpone ratification until the Constitution was amended appropriately. The Federalists stood their ground initially, but when it became apparent that ratification was in jeopardy, they agreed to a compromisethey would accept proposed amendments for inclusion in a bill of rights with the ratification instruments of the states.

James Madison (17511836), who was elected to represent Virginia in the First Congress, had made a campaign pledge to his Anti-Federalist constituents that he would sponsor a bill of rights and work toward its passage. In June 1789 Madison introduced a proposed bill of rights in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madisons bill of rights reflected the recommendations of the state ratifying conventions, but it also drew upon the Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. Congress approved twelve of Madisons proposed amendments, and ten were ratified by the states. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791.

The Bill of Rights limits the powers of the federal government, but in the late nineteenth century the U.S. Supreme Court began using the Fourteenth Amendment to make the Bill of Rights applicable to state governments as well. According to the Courts incorporation doctrine, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from violating those provisions of the Bill of Rights that represent the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions (Hebert v. Louisiana 1926). Between 1897 and 1969, the Supreme Court made nearly all of the protections of the Bill of Rights binding upon the states.

SEE ALSO Civil Liberties; Civil Rights


Labunski, Richard E. 2006. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1977. The Great Rights of Mankind: A History of the American Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malia Reddick