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United States Bill of Rights

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The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. When the Constitution was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification, many of its opponents claimed that the Constitution did not include a bill of rights because the document was an aristocratic scheme to remove the rights of Americans. Supporters, known as Federalists, assured Americans that a Bill of Rights would be added by the first Congress.

After the Constitution was ratified, the first Congress met. Most of the delegates agreed that a Bill of Rights was needed and most of them believed that the same rights should be enumerated. The task of drafting the Bill of Rights fell to James Madison, who based his work on George Mason's earlier work, Virginia Declaration of Rights. It had been decided earlier that the Bill of Rights would be added to the Constitution as amendments (the list of rights was not included in the text of the Constitution because it was feared that changing the document's text would necessitate the rather painful process of re-ratifying the Constitution).

The Bill of Rights includes rights such as freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. It also includes a clause assuring the American people that the bill of rights should not be interpreted as a list of all rights belonging to Americans, but rather a list of the most important rights.

Twelve amendments were originally proposed in 1789, but two failed to pass. On November 20 that year, New Jersey became the first state in the newly-formed Union to ratify these amendments. Other states followed, and the ten amendments that were made law on December 15, 1791 soon became known as the Bill of Rights. The eleventh was ratified in 1992 as the 27th amendment to the Constitution; it restricts the ability of Congress to raise its own pay. The twelfth is theoretically still pending, but unlikely to ever pass. It deals with setting the size of Congress.

The Bill of Rights passed the House easily. When it was sent to the Senate, an amendment was removed that forbade states from interfering with the rights of the people. Since records of the meetings of the Senate are not available to the public, no one can say for sure why this amendment was removed. The fourteenth amendment, passed in 1868, has been widely interpreted by courts to do exactly that. The other amendment regulated the size of the House.

The original copy of the Bill of Rights, which contains the text of the two failed amendments, can be seen by the public today at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The amendments making up the Bill of Rights are:

The following text is a transcription of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution in their original form. These amendments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the "Bill of Rights."

Preamble

CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES

Begun and held at the City of New York, on Wednesday, the Fourth of March, One Thousand Seven Hundred Eighty-nine.

The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the Time of their Adopting the Constitution, expressed a Desire, in Order to prevent Misconstruction or Abuse of its Powers, that further declaratory and restrictive Clauses should be added: And as exceeding the Ground of public Confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent Ends of its Institution,

RESOLVED, by the Senate, and House of Representatives, of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, Two Thirds of both Houses concurring, That the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as Amendments to the Constitution of the United States: All, or any of, which Articles, when ratified by Three-Fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of the said Constitution, viz.

Articles in Addition to, and Amendment of, the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the Fifth Article of the original Constitution.

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 reexamined 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.

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For an earlier document of the same name, see the English Bill of Rights.

Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.