The Problem

The year is 1789. The American Constitution has just been implemented, and it neatly lays out how the federal government should be run. However, it doesn’t say much about what the government can’t do. For those who were against a strong central government, such a document did nothing to assuage their fears. What would prevent those in power from trampling upon the lives of their citizens?

The Answer

The answer lay in what would become the first ten amendments to the U. S. Constitution. Collectively, these amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. They were added so quickly to the Constitution because the people wanted the security that their government wouldn’t take away their basic liberties.

Definition of Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights protects citizens’ civil liberties from the federal government’s infringement. While used interchangeably with the term civil rights, civil liberties are distinct from civil rights. Civil liberties are freedoms ensured by the Constitution in order to protect the people from the tyranny of the government. Civil rights protect individuals from discrimination, serving to limit the power of the majority. The Bill of Rights protects civil liberties that are innately possessed by people.

The History

The issue of adding protections for civil liberties to the Constitution didn’t gain much traction until James Madison was persuaded to see their importance. The issue still faced opposition, though. The Constitution was newly implemented, and the founders feared that amending it so soon would make the government look unstable and imbalanced. Others knew that they’d inevitably fail to make an exhaustive list and that a bill of rights would, therefore, be limiting rather than protecting people’s inherent liberties. Despite such arguments, it was eventually decided that something needed to be added to the Constitution to protect civil liberties.

James Madison originally proposed twenty amendments to the House of Representatives. Over the course of eleven days, the amendments were then debated, edited, and condensed. During this time, it was decided that these revisions would be added to the end of the Constitution rather than be inserted into the actual document. By late August of 1789, seventeen amendments were approved and sent to the Senate, where the process began all over again. The Senate revised, condensed, and eliminated until only twelve amendments were approved. The House and Senate held a conference committee to resolve lingering disagreements before sending the twelve amendments to the state legislatures. The ten amendments that were approved by three-fourths of the states became ratified, making the Bill of Rights officially part of the Constitution.

It’s important to note that the Bill of Rights originally only applied to the federal government, not state governments. It wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment that this changed. As it was written, only the Fourteenth Amendment applied to both federal and state governments, but since the 1920s, the Supreme Court has used the Fourteenth Amendment to defend the applying of other amendments, like the First and Sixth, to states as well. This process of applying sections of the Bill of Rights to the state governments is called selective incorporation. As cases concerning the amendments arise and are brought before the Supreme Court, the judges almost always use selective incorporation to make their rulings.

So What?

An important fact to remember is that the Bill of Rights doesn’t grant you civil liberties. The government isn’t giving you freedom of religion or security against unreasonable searches and seizures. You already possess those civil liberties, along with others left unlisted. The Bill of Rights recognizes your inherent civil liberties and serves to protect and defend them.

    Learn More

    1. Amar, Akhil Reed. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. Yale University, 1998. ISBN: 0-300-07379-8.
    2. Cogan, Neil H. (2015). The Complete Bill of Rights: The Drafts, Debates, Sources, and Origins. Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0199324200
    3. Labunski, Richard E. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-19-518105-0.
    4. Lutz, Donald S. The Origins of American Constitution. LSU Press, 1988. ISBN: 0-807-11506-1.
    5. Smith, Rich. Bill of Rights: Defining Our Freedom. Abdo Consulting Group, Inc, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59938-913-7.

    Think Further

    1. What are some civil liberties not listed in the Bill of Rights?
    2. Why do you think the Bill of Rights originally only applied to the federal government?
    3. Why do you think the Supreme Court was so hesitant to extend the Bill of Rights to the states?

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