The Bill of Rights Guarantees Basic Freedoms

Even before the Constitution was officially adopted, many delegates at the state ratifying conventions called for changes. Most delegates demanded that some kind of bill of rights be added to the document. Without a bill of rights, Patrick Henry asked, "How will we be protected against unjust acts of govern­ment?" Many others shared his concern.

One of the new Congress' first acts in 1789 was to pass a series of ten amendments to the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights - as these amendments came to be known - protect Americans' basic freedoms against the power of the fed­eral government. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed 77 years later, extended this protection against the power of state and local governments.

James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, made it clear that these ten amendments did not actually give Americans any rights. Madison's thinking was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Like the philosopher John Locke, he believed that certain rights - such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - are natural. By "natural" he meant that people were born with them and did not need a government to grant them. The only pur­pose of a written Bill of Rights, Madison argued, was to prevent government from taking away these fundamental rights.

      Fundamental rights are basic or essential freedoms


What the Amendments Say. The First Amendment guarantees individual liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. It also protects freedom of the press. Not surprisingly, many people have described this amend­ment as "the heart of America's freedom."

The next three amendments grew out of the colonists' strug­gle against Britain. By guaranteeing the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment ensures the con­tinued existence of state armies. The Third Amendment pro­hibits the government from forcing citizens to keep troops in their homes. And the Fourth Amendment, sometimes called theprivacy amendment, protects citizens against "unreasonable" searches of their homes and forbids seizure of their property. Amendments five through eight concern the rights of citizens who are accused of crimes. They also grew out of the experiences of the colonists under British rule. For example, in 1732 a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested and charged with trying to turn the people against a colonial governor. The colonial gov­ernment kept Zenger in jail for nine months before bringing his case to trial. The government also denied Zenger bail, the money accused people give a court to gain their freedom before a trial. The Americans who demanded a Bill of Rights wanted to make sure that they did not have to repeat the experiences of Zenger. The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process of law Due process means that the government must follow a set of specific and fair rules when accusing and trying a person of a crime. The Fifth Amendment also says that people do not have to give evi­dence in court that might hurt them and that they cannot be tried twice for the same crime. The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens a jury trial in criminal cases and the right to a lawyer. The right to a jury trial in civil cases is contained in the Seventh Amendment. The Eighth Amendment prevents judges from setting "excessive bail" or handing out "cruel and unusual punishments."

What the Amendments Do Not Say. The final two amendments limit the powers of the federal government to those powers granted in the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment says that rights not stated in the Constitution belong to the people. Madison included this amendment to make sure that the Bill of Rights didn't restrict citizens' rights to those decribed in the document. The Tenth Amendment reserves for the states those powers that the Constitution does riot delegate to the national government. This amendment reassured Anti-Federalists, those people opposed to the Constitution, that the national government would not become too powerful. The original purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect indi­vidual citizens from the power of the central government. The Constitution did not say anywhere that state governments had to follow these rules. With the addition of the Fourteenth Amend­ment, however, state and local governments have also been required to protect these basic freedoms.

Individual Rights Versus Majority Rule. The Bill of Rights is a powerful declaration of the rights of the individual. On the other hand, the United States is a democracy, and one of the basic prin­ciples of any democracy is the idea of majority rule. According to majority rule, laws are designed to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But when the needs of the majority conflict with individual liberties, which principle should be fol­lowed? Should a person be allowed to say or do anything, for example, even if it hurts society as a whole?

The Bill of Rights has been at the center of some of the most important and controversial Supreme Court cases in our coun­try's history In these cases the justices have had to struggle again and again to find the proper balance between individual liberty and majority rule.

bail money given by accused persons to obtain their release while awaiting trial

due process legal proceedings carried out according to established rules and principles

civil relating to ordinary community life as opposed to criminal proceedings