The Bill of Rights

The Constitution has been amended 26 times since 1789, and it is likely to be further revised in the future. The most sweeping changes were made within two years of its adoption. In that period, the first 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added. They were approved as a block by the Congress in September 1789, and ratified by 11 states by the end of 1791.

Much of the initial resistance to the Constitution came not from those opposed to strengthening the federal union, but from statesmen who felt that the rights of individuals must be specifically spelled out. One of these was George Mason, author of the Declaration of Rights of Virginia, which was a forerunner of the Bill of Rights. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Mason refused to sign the document because he felt individual rights were not sufficiently protected. Indeed, Mason's opposition nearly blocked ratification by Virginia. As noted earlier, Massachusetts, because of similar feelings, conditioned its ratification on the addition of specific guarantees of individual rights. By the time the First Congress convened, sentiment for adoption of such amendments was nearly unanimous, and the Congress lost little time in drafting them.

These amendments remain intact today, as they were written two centuries ago. The first guarantees freedom of worship, speech and press, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to correct wrongs. The second guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. The third provides that troops may not be quartered in private homes without the owner's consent. The fourth guards against unreasonable searches, arrests and seizures of property.

The next four amendments deal with the system of justice: The fifth forbids trial for a major crime except after indictment by a grand jury. It prohibits repeated trials for the same offense; forbids punishment without due process of law and provides that an accused person may not be compelled to testify against himself. The sixth guarantees a speedy public trial for criminal offenses. It requires trial by an unbiased jury, guarantees the right to legal counsel for the accused, and provides that witnesses shall be compelled to attend the trial and testify in the presence of the accused. The seventh assures trial by jury in civil cases involving anything valued at more than 20 U.S. dollars. The eighth forbids excessive bail or fines, and cruel or unusual punishment.

The last two of the 10 amendments contain very broad statements of constitutional authority: The ninth declares that the listing of individual rights is not meant to be comprehensive; that the people have other rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The 10th provides that powers not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states or the people.