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Bill of Rights

Bill Of Rights

The Bill of Rights, which consists of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was drafted by the first Congress of the new government in 1789 and went into effect on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the amendments.

The Bill of Rights followed a tradition in Anglo-American law of drawing up a list of basic rights to which all the people in the state were entitled. The English Bill of Rights, enacted in 1689, included the right to petition the government with grievances, the right to trial by jury, and the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishments. In 1774 the First Continental Congress drew up a Declaration of Rights, which included such liberties as freedom of the press and a prohibition against standing armies in peacetime.

The VIRGINIA DECLARATION OF RIGHTS, enacted in 1776, quickly became the model for other states. By 1781 eight states had enacted bills of rights, and four others had included statements guaranteeing individual rights either in the prefaces to their constitutions or in supplementary statutes. The ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION did not include a bill of rights, however. The drafters of the Articles believed that the protection of individual rights was a state responsibility.

At the 1787 CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, EDMUND RANDOLPH and GEORGE MASON of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts sought unsuccessfully to include a bill of rights in the new constitution. Most delegates took the view that the state bills of rights would continue to protect individual rights at the state level and that Congress would resist any attempts to infringe upon individual liberties at the federal level.

When the lack of a bill of rights became an issue in the ratification process, James Madison promised that the first Congress would enact a bill of rights as part of its business. As a member of the first House of Representatives, Madison reminded the members of this pledge. He drafted much of the final document, using Mason's VIRGINIA DECLARATION OF RIGHTS as a model.

The Bill of Rights plays a central role in the protection of civil liberties and civil rights. When enacted, the ten amendments applied only to the actions of the federal government. In a long series of decisions, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that almost all the provisions in the Bill of Rights also apply to the states. Therefore, the Bill of Rights safeguards the basic rights of individuals from encroachment by all levels of government.

Source: The United States Government Manual.

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