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Bill of Rights of the US Constitution: Promise Made, Promise Kept

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

These amendments limit the power of the federal government.

The Constitution was a grant of power to the central government by the People of the United States; the Bill of Rights places limits on that power. The Bill of Rights includes natural rights given to human beings from their Creator. Abuses suffered by colonists at the hands of King George as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, served to inspire additional protections.

The Bill of Rights contains protections for the natural rights of liberty and property. The freedoms of religion, speech, free press, free assembly, petition for redress of grievances and the right to keep and bear arms are addressed. Important protections were put in place for persons accused of crimes including the rights to a speedy trial, to remain silent, to not be prosecuted twice for the same crime, to have an attorney and more.

James Madison: "Father of the Constitution"

James Madison: “Father of the Constitution”

James Madison proposed 19 amendments to the First United States Congress. Congress, by joint resolution, sent 12 of these amendments to the states on September 25, 1789. On December 15, 1791, with Virginia’s ratification, (11th of the then 14 states) 10 of the proposed amendments became part of the Constitution through the Constitution’s Article V amendment process.

Two Proposed Amendments Not Ratified

The first two proposed amendments, concerning the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified. (The proposed amendment regarding congressional compensation was ratified more than 200 years later, becoming the 27th Amendment.)

Ratification of Proposed Constitution Not Assured

The Constitutional Convention  finished its work on September 17, 1787. The Constitution’s Article VII provided that the Constitution would go into effect when nine of the thirteen states had ratified the document. Ratification was by no means assured. There were groups known as Federalists that favored ratification and the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution.

Among the arguments made against the Constitution by the Anti-Federalists was the lack of specific protections from the federal government for citizens of their most important natural rights. The proposed Constitution did not have protections from a strong government engaging in abuses colonists had suffered under the British. To secure votes for ratification, in a number of states, but in Massachusetts in particular, proponents of the Constitution promised to amend the document to address the lack of the Bill of Rights once the document went into effect.

Both New York and Virginia, among others included recommendations for amendments along with the resolutions of ratification.  From these state recommendations, the First Congress began the work of keeping the promise to add a Bill of Rights.

Promises Made, Promises Kept

The Federalists kept the promise to propose amendments to protect specific rights with Madison’s proposal of nineteen amendments to the First Congress.  The congress trimmed these proposals to the twelve submitted to the states for ratification. Ten were ratified. (The story of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, originally proposed as the second amendment, and University of Texas student Gregory Watson is of interest.)

The promise was kept after the Constitution’s ratification and after the Federalists won significant majorities in both the House and Senate in the nation’s first congressional elections. This is a testament to the political honor and commitment to keeping a promise that existed among American leaders of the 18th century. An example for 21st century politicians exists in the story of the Bill of Rights.

The addition of the Bill of Rights not only kept the promise of the Federalist advocates of ratification.  It was a confirmation of the Natural Law founding philosophy outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  This act of the new government, consistent with its founding philosophy, further solidified the support of the population for the new government and its legal legitimacy.

Amendment I

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.

Amendment II

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.

Amendment III

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.

Amendment IV

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.

Amendment V

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 offence 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.

Amendment VI

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 defence.

Amendment VII

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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

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.


For Further Reading



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  10. […] it is often referred to as a source for the American Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 made no provisions for freedom of the press. There was a long […]

  11. […] drafters of the Bill of Rights selected that phrase to be used in the three amendments.  As a “term of art” it has the same […]

  12. […] Constitution specific unalienable natural rights have been made part of its positive law in the Bill of Rights, e.g.: freedom of speech,  religion and press, keep and bear arms. Beyond rights written into […]

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  14. […] promised to do so once it was in operation.  In 1791, in keeping with that promise, the Bill of Rights was ratified. The Tenth Amendment stated clearly what the Constitution had done […]

  15. […] of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.  The 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments all relate to […]

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  18. […] With those words, Justice Scalia put to rest a debate as to the meaning of the Second Amendment that had persisted for much of the 20th Century. The debate had been whether a “collective right” relating to state militias or an “individual right” involving personal possession was protected. The Second Amendment is among the most well-known of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights: […]

  19. […] [2] ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” This is part of the Constitution‘s Bill of Rights. […]

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  23. […] US Constitution‘s Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, like the Third Amendment, is rooted in the English tradition of the sanctity of one’s home. […]

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  34. […] the implications of Agency principles alone, many state conventions included recommendations for a Bill of Rights along with their ratification resolutions.  The new government went in effect in 1789, and the […]

  35. […] Sixth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, passed by the First Congress in 1789, completing a promise of the proponents of the Constitution […]

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    Bill of Rights of the US Constitution: Promise Made, Promise Kept | David J. Shestokas

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  42. […] provision was thought insufficient by opponents of the Constitution’s ratification.  When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the Sixth Amendment […]

  43. […] amendments pursuant to Article V. Several of New Hampshire’s suggestions did become part of the Bill of Rights.[1]  Most did not.  The country would be much different today had New Hampshire’s proposals to […]

  44. […] Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 in response to complaints that the original Constitution had few protections […]

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