The Bill of Rights is comprised of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments are a series of rights and protections of the people. Many were written in response to actual or perceived injustices inflicted on the colonists by the English government. The amendments continue to guide American politics.
It’s important to note that the statements included in the amendments are not ironclad, and have been up for interpretation many times throughout American history. The common example of “you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” shows where the First Amendment’s right to free speech does not override other people’s rights to safety and health, which would be endangered in a panicked flight from an inferno.
This amendment is made up of four sections, each related to a different aspect of the people’s ability to express themselves. The first deals with freedom of religion, meaning the government cannot favor, or disfavor, any religion or how it is practiced. How people worship can’t be controlled by the state, so they can pray during the day if they believe it necessary. The second part is freedom of speech and press, which means the government cannot control who publishes or says what, so the people can develop whatever criticism of the government they like. The third is the right for a peaceful assembly, so people can get together and talk about whatever they want. Some governments limit large gatherings for fear it will bring rebellion. The last listed right is the “redress of grievances,” meaning the people can demand their government be accountable.
This amendment says that the people retain the right to bear arms in a well-regulated militia. The amendment grew out of the British government’s use of a standing army to oppress their population. At the same time, the unregulated militias of the states proved to be of limited effect in the American Revolution in battles against British regulars. The amendment tries to balance the unreliability of a militia against the fear of the standing army troops being used to quell dissent. The theory is an armed population will make it impossible for an army to be used to strike against its people. Precisely what that means has been reinterpreted multiple times since its writing. Now, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, it’s considered to apply to all citizens as an individual right.
This is one of the least used amendments in the Bill of Rights, as it prevents the government from forcing people to house troops. This is more than a group of soldiers sleeping in a spare bedroom. The English government would require people to house soldiers and provide for their food and drink. This was one of the major complaints of city residents in the lead-up to the revolution. To make the strain worse, property owners were often left uncompensated for the use of their supplies. Boston was particularly effected by these postings, both as a transportation nexus and a center of political resistance.
This limits the kinds of searches and seizures the government can perform. Under this amendment, the government has to prove to a judge that they have “probable cause” to find evidence or materials used in a crime. Probable cause is a common legal standard that means, roughly, that evidence of criminal activity should exist. Police must at least put together the foundations of a case, before they start entering people’s homes and seizing their goods. Insdtead of going This amendment came into play because the English government would simply search homes and take property on a whim, without the sort of safeguards the Founders wanted.
This splits into several interrelated pieces related to the prosecution of justice- in this case, the need for a person to know the charges against them, a prevention of dual jeopardy, protection against self-incrimination, the due process of law and prevention of unjust seizure of property. All of these were concerns of the Founding Fathers. The English government would at times hold them for years without informing them of the charges. That made it impossible for the arrested person to prepare a defense. Dual jeopardy means that someone can’t be prosecuted twice for the same crime, preventing the government from exhausting someone’s resources by repeated court action. Self-incrimination was a special concern, as monarchies would extract a confession from someone, at times by torture, then use that confession against them. Due process of law requires everyone to have the proper steps of a case, such as being charged, gathering evidence and having a hearing in front of a judge. The amendment also guarantees that something someone worked for could only be taken if they were fairly compensated for it.
This amendment provides that people will be prosecuted in public trials by a jury where the crime was committed. Additionally, they will have the opportunity to confront witnesses against them and can force witnesses to show up. Finally, they have a right to have an attorney assist them. The government, with all its resources, has the advantage in most trials. They can more easily produce witnesses than an individual and have teams of lawyers available. By giving a defendant these rights, everyone has a better chance of justice being done. Compelling a witness is commonly done by subpoenas; It can be hard to find someone willing to freely speak on behalf of an accused child molester.
This reinforces that virtually all cases will be held in front of a jury and that common law is the national system. The jurors act as a check upon the government, determining the truth in any particular case. The common law system means that cases are decided on a system based on prior decisions and new laws. This varies from the Roman system, where all crimes and punishments are clearly defined at one location.
This holds together three concepts, all dealing with fairness in justice. First is that bail is not too high. It chains bail to the primary purpose of ensuring someone shows up for further court action. It’d be simple for the government to set bail at a trillion dollars for every case, keeping everyone in jail. The second concept is that fines will not be excessive. This prevents the government from seeking to bankrupt someone over a minor crime. The last one is that there won’t be a cruel or unusual punishment, which is open to interpretation. Without it, the government could burn people at the stake or order the flogging of someone for petty theft.
This amendment establishes that just because something is listed in the Constitution does not mean that the people’s rights end there. James Madison in particular was concerned that listing people’s rights would lead towards the assumption that only those rights mattered. One right that has been included in this is a parent’s right to raise their children. Although this can be taken away from a person, like the right to bear arms from a violent felon, it must be done so within the framework of the Constitution.
This is a catch-all sort of amendment that fulfills some of the same purposes as the ninth. Any powers that are not given to the federal government remain with the people or are conferred to the states. This has been contentious almost since it was written, being cited in 1819. It enforces the idea that the powers of the federal government are not unlimited. The English King maintained for centuries he controlled all power in the country, meaning he could do whatever he wanted. This amendment, along with the Ninth, works to prevent that.
- The Bill of Rights – National Center for Constitutional Studies
- Primary Documents in American History, the Bill of Rights – Library of Congress
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