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Study Notes

The Bill of Rights

AQA, Edexcel, OCR

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Together they guarantee to protect a number of key personal freedoms and rights. They were passed together in order to appease those who opposed the ratification of the original Constitution.

The Bill of Rights was drawn up by James Madison and the ten amendments were ratified in 1791. It is important you know what the Bill of Rights says, and what each of the amendments says.

The Bill of Rights – Original Text

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 offence 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.

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 defence.

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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

VIII - Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

IX - The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people

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 Bill of Rights – What they mean

No one expects you to be able to recite the exact text of the Bill of Rights, but don’t let us stop you if you really want to! It is important that you understand what each amendment means and the implications that it has! Below is our handy guide to what each one means that hopefully isn’t too complicated!

I – Freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Right to free assembly and right for redress of grievances.

Essentially, Congress or states cannot pass any laws which restrict any of the freedoms outlined above

II- The Right to bear arms

Probably one of the most controversial amendments, certainly today, it allows any person as a constitutional right to own weapons.

III – No quartering of soldiers

The US Government is not allowed to place soldiers in a private residence. It has to date never been the basis of any Supreme Court decision

IV – Unwarranted search and seizure

All searches by law enforcement must be accompanied by a warrant and supported by probable cause. Evidence obtained without these, cannot then be used in a court of law.

V – Protection from Self Incrimination and Due Process

Guarantees the rights of people to be protected from giving evidence against themselves and that all legal rights (due process) will be upheld. It was this amendment that was the basis for the establishment of the ‘Miranda Rights’ in Miranda v Arizona (1966)

VI – Rights of the accused in trials

Defendants in trials will have the following: speedy and public trials, impartial jury, informed of the charges, see witnesses and evidence against you, compel witnesses to appear and the right to legal counsel. Supreme Court decision Gideon v Wainwright (1963) ruled the amendment provides for legal representation in all felony trials.

VII – Right to a jury trial

In trials, people shall have a right to have a jury present, and any facts found by the jury cannot be judicially overturned.

VIII – Excessive Bail or Cruel and Unusual Punishment

This prohibits the imposition of excessive bail and forbids punishments that are deemed the be cruel and unusual. This clause regularly comes into conflict with punishment surrounding the death penalty

IX – Not an exhaustive list

This states that whilst specific rights are mentioned in the Bill of Rights, it is not all of them. It is under this amendment that the right to privacy has been found for various Supreme Court cases, despite the words ‘Right to Privacy’ never appearing in the Constitution.

X – Powers Reserved to the States

Reinforces the principles of Separation of Powers and federalism. All powers not given to the Federal Government are the responsibility of the states.

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