Civics 101: The Bill of Rights

J. H. Osborne • Jul 30, 2018 at 12:12 PM

This week in Civics 101 we continue looking at our nation’s founding documents with a brief overview of the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.

The concept of a Bill of Rights played a large role in getting the Constitution ratified.

In 1787, as the United States Constitution was being hashed out, some Constitutional Convention delegates known as Anti-Federalists fought against the document, saying it created a powerful central government that reminded them of the one they had just overthrown — and it lacked a bill of rights. Ratification of the Constitution was close, the tide turning when a “vote now, amend later” compromise helped secure victory in Massachusetts.

Supporters of the Constitution originally argued that a bill of rights wasn’t necessary because  “the government can only exert the powers specified by the Constitution.” But James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to secure its passage. Why? Madison had come to appreciate the importance voters attached to these protections, the role that enshrining them in the Constitution could have in educating people about their rights, and the chance that adding them might prevent its opponents from making more drastic changes to it.

The Bill of Rights spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. The Bill of Rights guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual — like freedom of speech, press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states. And it specifies that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

On October 2, 1789, President George Washington sent copies of the 12 amendments adopted by Congress to the states. By December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified 10 of these, now known as the Bill of Rights.

Next week: The First Amendment.

Source: The National Archives.