The Bill of Rights: A Refresher

When Thinking Nation was still just an idea, a lot of our curriculum conversations centered on the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our country and it is a living document that has guided government and citizens for over two centuries. Understanding it can help strengthen our democracy and instill a trust in its aims, even when we fail to meet those aims. Interpretable and amendable, critical analysis of the nation’s founding document can never stop. If we want to form a more perfect union, we must understand the document that serves as the foundation for that endeavor. One specific area that we should continuously refresh our knowledge of is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791.

To contextualize the Bill of Rights, it is important to reread the purpose of the Constitution. The United States Constitution begins with this preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” With this sentence, the founders outlined their vision for America. The remainder of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is an outline for how that vision should materialize.

The Bill of Rights was the founders’ written promise to posterity that the American government would protect the rights of its citizens. The 1st Amendment protects freedoms like religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government. The 2nd Amendment protects the right to bear arms. The 3rd Amendment ensures that U.S. soldiers cannot take advantage of civilians’ homes. The 4th Amendment guards against unlawful searches and seizures. The 5th Amendment protects against self-incrimination and secures due process. The 6th Amendment ensures transparency through a speedy and public trial and provides defendants the right to have a lawyer. The 7th Amendment secures the right to a jury. The 8th Amendment shelters citizens from cruel and unusual punishments and excessive fines. The 9th Amendment even states that there are many other rights, not listed, that the government cannot take away. Lastly, to protect against an overpowering federal government, the 10th Amendment asserts that rights not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people.

In the Declaration of Independence, it states, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” That is the role of the government, to secure our rights. The Bill of Rights is an important reminder of this role and our duty to ensure that the government lives out its purpose.