What Is the Purpose of the Bill of Rights?

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The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights, and their purpose is to establish personal liberties and put limits on government power.

The United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, but not without opposition. Issues with the Constitution first arose at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when opponents pointed out that the document failed to mention several basic rights for individuals and states. Although different states had different ideas for what freedoms and rights should be included in the amendments to the Constitution, they were able to agree on the 10 amendments drafted and added to the Bill of Rights in 1791.

Opponents of the Constitution In the early years of the United States, people were divided as to whether the country needed a strong national government or should give most of the power to the state and local governments. The Federalists were in favor of ratifying the Constitution and forming a strong central government. In contrast, the Anti-Federalists wanted that power to remain at state and local levels. They were vehemently opposed to the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added.

Changing the Constitution Delegate George Mason of Virginia was the first to suggest that a bill of rights preface the Constitution. His motion was rejected at the Constitution Convention, but the discontent and divide between delegates remained. James Madison, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and author of the first drafts of the Constitution, went through the document and made edits where he felt appropriate. However, the Congress objected and stated that he did not have the authority to make these changes. Instead, Madison, who was heavily influenced by Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, proposed the changes as amendments to the Constitution. The House approved 17 amendments, the U.S. Senate approved 12 and the states approved 10 of those, which later became known as the Bill of Rights.

What Rights Are Granted in the Bill of Rights? The first amendment addresses fundamental rights and freedoms, including speech, religion, assembly and the press. The next two amendments offer protections against arbitrary military action, including the right to bear arms and that troops will not be quartered in homes during peacetime. The next five provide protections against arbitrary police and court action such as no unlawful searches and seizures, the right to a speedy trial and no cruel or unusual punishments, among others. The last two amendments in the Bill of Rights protects states’ rights and unnamed rights of the people.

Enforcing the Bill of Rights When the Bill of Rights first went into effect, it only applied to laws and activities at the national level. This meant there was no law preventing the states from denying these rights to their citizens. This was the case until after the Civil War and the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868. This amendment broadened the application of the Bill of Rights at both the state and national levels. To this day, state and federal courts must enforce the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has the final say in any disputes and interpretations.