Civil Liberties in the United States

Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution

The promise of adding a Bill of Rights, a collection of guarantees for individual freedoms and of limitations on federal government power, was a key factor in ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

The First Congress approved the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, which ensure individual protections from the government—in 1789, and it was ratified by the states in 1791. The Bill of Rights is the most important legally binding guarantee of the civil liberties of Americans. A civil liberty is freedom from government interference with an individual's fundamental rights.

The Bill of Rights had deep historical roots, the earliest of which was England's Magna Carta of 1215. This "great charter" bound the English monarch to respect certain basic liberties, such as protection from being unlawfully imprisoned. Other provisions of the Magna Carta guaranteed protection of religious rights, trial by a jury of peers, no delay in delivery of justice, and that taxes would not be levied without consent. Later forerunners of the Bill of Rights were the English Bill of Rights (1689), which limited the monarch's powers, and Virginia's Declaration of Rights (1776), which asserted the rights to a free press, freedom of religion, due process, and a jury trial. Virginia's document is widely seen as a model for the U.S. Bill of Rights.

When the framers of the Constitution finished their work in September 1787, they sent the document to the 13 states for ratification. Support for the Constitution was not universal, and the process sparked a lengthy, spirited debate over ratification. Federalists, or supporters of a strong central government, urged ratification. Anti-Federalists opposed the new Constitution's ratification because of the belief that the federal government was given too much power. They argued—among other objections—that the document did not adequately protect individual liberties fought for in the American Revolution. The final vote to ratify the Constitution was extremely close in several important states, such as Virginia and New York. The Constitutional Convention itself had paid little attention to the issue of a bill of rights. One delegate, Roger Sherman, argued that such a guarantee was unnecessary because state constitutions provided their own bills of rights. He also argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary because if the Constitution did not say the national government could do something, you could safely assume that it could not. James Madison, often called the father of the Constitution because of his crucial role in crafting and promoting the document, also thought a bill of rights unnecessary.

Yet the champions of a national bill of rights were eloquent. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "no just government should refuse" such a guarantee. As the debate continued and ratification remained in doubt, Madison changed his view, and the promise of a bill of rights secured ratification in three key states: Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. Madison's influence in the House of Representatives was probably the most critical factor in congressional passage of the Bill of Rights in 1789. Congress's adoption of the Bill of Rights prompted votes in favor of ratification in North Carolina (1789) and Rhode Island (1790), both of which had held out for the addition of these protections. Their approval made ratification by the 13 states unanimous.
After its passage by the First Congress in 1789, the Bill of Rights was officially copied in this form.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 1408042

The Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties

Amendment Provision
1st Amendment Protects freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition
2nd Amendment Based on the statement that a "well-regulated militia" provides security to a free state, grants right to bear arms
3rd Amendment Establishes conditions for quartering, or housing, of soldiers in people's homes in times of peace
4th Amendment Prevents unreasonable search and seizure of property and requires issuance of search warrants based on probable cause
5th Amendment Grants freedom from self-incrimination and double jeopardy and calls for due process
6th Amendment Grants right to a speedy, public trial; to confront witnesses; and to be represented by an attorney
7th Amendment Grants right to trial by jury in civil cases
8th Amendment Prevents excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments
9th Amendment Establishes that the rights of the people are not limited to those specified in the Constitution
10th Amendment Stipulates that powers not specified in the Constitution are reserved to the states or to the people