The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It establishes such crowd favorites as the freedom of speech (#1), freedom from unreasonable search-and-seizure (#4), and the right to due process of law (#5).
Photograph courtesy the National Archives

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  • On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became law in the United States. One hundred and fifty years later, President Franklin Roosevelt made December 15 “Bill of Rights Day.”
    The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees certain freedoms to individuals, states, and communities. It was written by Rep. James Madison (R-Virginia), nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution.” (Madison later served as Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, and succeeded him as the fourth President of the United States.)
    The Bill of Rights includes these amendments:
    Amendment I
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 
    The first amendment establishes freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to protest the government.
    Amendment II
    “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
    The second amendment establishes the right of people to own weapons.
    Amendment III
    “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
    The third amendment protects people from having to support the living conditions of soldiers in their private homes. (This was a direct response to British protocols during the Revolutionary War.)
    Amendment IV
    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
    The fourth amendment protects people from unreasonable search by authorities such as the police.
    Amendment V
    “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
    The fifth amendment establishes the right of people to the due process of law.
    Amendment VI
    “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
    The sixth amendment establishes the basic rights of a defendant in a criminal case, such as the right to an impartial jury.
    Amendment VII
    “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
    The seventh amendment establishes the right of people to a trial by jury (not a judge) in some federal cases.
    Amendment VIII
    “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
    The eighth amendment protects people against excessive fines and “cruel and unusual punishment.”
    Amendment IX
    “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
    The ninth amendment protects the rights of individuals from being limited to the specific rights in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
    Amendment X
    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
    The tenth amendment establishes that powers not given to the federal government in the Constitution or Bill of Rights will be kept by the states or individuals.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    amendment Noun

    change made to a law or set of laws.

    Bill of Rights Noun

    first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

    constitution Noun

    system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.

    criminal case Noun

    legal dispute involving the government.

    defendant Noun

    person or organization accused of a crime or other wrongdoing.

    due process Noun administration of justice, according to which no citizen may be denied his or her legal rights.
    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    excessive Adjective

    too much, or more than usual.

    federal Adjective

    having to do with a nation's government (as opposed to local or regional government).

    fine Verb

    to punish, usually by charging an economic penalty or fee. Or, the penalty or fee itself.

    freedom Noun

    independence to make one's own choices.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    guarantee Verb

    to promise or confirm.

    impartial Adjective

    fair or unbiased.

    jury Noun

    group of people selected to determine facts in a specific case.

    Encyclopedic Entry: jury
    law Noun

    public rule.

    police Noun

    local, state, or national government organization for law enforcement.

    protect Verb

    to take action to prevent injury or attack.

    protest noun, verb

    demonstration against a policy or action.

    protocol Noun

    series of rules.

    punishment Noun

    penalty inflicted for a crime or offense.

    reasonable Adjective


    religion Noun

    a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

    Revolutionary War Noun

    (1775-1783) conflict between Great Britain and the colonies that became the United States. Also called the American War of Independence.

    specific Adjective

    exact or precise.

    state Noun

    political unit in a nation, such as the United States, Mexico, or Australia.

    succeed Verb

    to follow or replace.

    trial Noun

    judgement of a person or organization's responsibility for a crime or misdemeanor.

    weapon Noun

    tool to hurt or combat an opponent.