The First Ten Amendments to the US Constitution are also known as the Bill of Rights. It is a list of rights guaranteed to the American people that the government is not allowed to infringe upon. The First Ten Amendments were added to the Constitution at the direction of the very first Congress in 1789, though they were not official law until 1791. They were added because many people believed the Constitution did not adequately protect them from the government's power.
James Madison led the fight to add the amendments in order to gain much wider support for the Constitution itself. Congress actually voted to have twelve amendments, but only ten were passed by the states. The Constitution requires that 3/4 of the state legislatures must accept an amendment for any change to be made to the Constitution.
What do the First Ten Amendments actually say? What rights are protected by them?
The following section gives you a brief overview of what is in each amendment with a link you can click on for more in depth information.
The First Amendment is without a doubt the most well known to Americans of the First Ten Amendments. Its familiar prohibitions against Congress making any laws regarding freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are some of the most commonly repeated thoughts in the discussion of politics in America.
Freedom of Speech
The First Amendment consists of seven parts:
You can read more in depth about the meaning of each part of the First Amendment by clicking here.
One of the First Ten Amendments that receives a lot of discussion these days is the Second Amendment because of gun violence, especially after disasters such as the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. The 2nd Amendment consists of two clauses:
The controversy lies in the interpretation of this amendment. Does it mean only that States can have a militia, or does it also mean that individuals can also have arms for self defense, rather than for national defense?
Read more about the interpretations and meaning of the Second Amendment here.
The Third Amendment is not as well known to most Americans as some of the other First Ten Amendments because it addresses a topic that hasn't much affected modern life, war on American soil. The 3rd Amendment has only one clause:
Read more about the history and meaning of the Third Amendment here.
The Fourth Amendment protects your stuff from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government. The Founding Fathers considered the right to personal property as one of the foundations of freedom and liberty. The 4th Amendment consists of two main parts:
Officers with a warrant
You can read more about the meaning of the Fourth Amendment here.
The Fifth Amendment is better known to Americans than some of the other of the First Ten Amendments, mostly due to the familiar plea of criminal defendants, "I plead the Fifth." The Fifth Amendment deals mostly with the rights of the accused in a criminal trial. The Fifth Amendment consists of six clauses, which are:
You can read more about the Fifth Amendment here.
The Sixth Amendment contains even more rights of those accused by the state of criminal wrongdoing, showing how important it was to the Founders to protect the common person from the power of the state. The state has a lot of power when it is trying to convict someone and this Amendment tries to empower the accused to defend himself. The 6th Amendment consists of seven parts:
You can read more about the Sixth Amendment here.
The Seventh Amendment contains the third guarantee in the First Ten Amendments of the right to trial by jury. You can see that it was a very important right to the Founding Fathers to be addressed so many times. By allowing a group of local citizens to judge whether or not a person is guilty, the Founders were protecting the accused from unfair or malicious government judges and prosecutors. The Seventh Amendment has two main parts:
You can read more about the Seventh Amendment here.
The Eighth Amendment deals with punishments that courts may impose on convicted people. It has two main clauses:
You can read more about the Eighth Amendment here.
At the time the Bill of Rights was being discussed, some people believed that it would not be a good idea to add a bill of rights because they thought it would imply that any rights not mentioned were not guaranteed. In order to address this concern, James Madison introduced an amendment that would specifically say that any rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution were still protected. This is one of the most important principles in the First Ten Amendments to the Bill of Rights, but many Americans are unaware of its principles and purpose. The Ninth Amendment has only one part:
Read more about the Ninth Amendment here.
The Tenth Amendment is also one of the least known of the First Ten Amendments. The principle expressed in this amendment is one that is also unfamiliar to many in modern day America because it states that there are limits on the power of the federal government, a principle that has been largely forgotten in modern lawmaking. The Tenth Amendment contains only one clause:
Read more about the Tenth Amendment here.
Last updated 8/2/12
Learn more about the Bill of Rights with the following articles: