America, a user's guide: The Bill of Rights

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution guarantee essential rights and liberties — and some other stuff

Published July 4, 2017 8:30AM (EDT)

Editor's note: Especially in times of intense political division — such as right now — it can often seem that Americans don’t agree about anything, including our national identity and how the country should be governed. With that in mind, we thought we would return on the Fourth of July to some unalterable facts: What the founding documents of the United States actually say.

Of course these documents — the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights — remain the source of endless controversy. Many statements in these documents are ambiguous, or can be interpreted in a variety of ways. What did the authors of the Constitution mean in stating that only a “natural born Citizen” is eligible to be president? Is the unclear phrasing of the Second Amendment really meant to confer an unlimited right to own private firearms?

There are things in these documents that many contemporary Americans probably wish were not there at all: the overtly racist reference to “merciless Indian Savages” in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, whose preamble may be the most inspiring single work of the 18th-century Enlightenment; or the infamous “three-fifths clause” in Article I,  Section 2, of the Constitution, which obliquely acknowledged that certain human beings in the Land of Liberty were held as other people’s property.

But all of it is our history; all of it represents the instructions and aspirations left behind for us generations ago by the Founding Fathers. These documents comprise the user’s guide for what Benjamin Franklin supposedly told a passerby outside the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was “a republic, madam — if you can keep it.”

We think we can keep it, but that remains open to doubt. Doing so will require both looking forward and looking back, in a spirit of thoughtfulness, humility and shared wisdom that tries to look past partisan division and insult. These words are a good place to start.

Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on
Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.

Note: The following text is a transcription of the first ten amendments to the Constitution in their original form. These amendments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the "Bill of Rights."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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 defence.

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

Amendment VIII

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

Amendment IX

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

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.

By James Madison

James Madison was an American founding father who served as fourth president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. He played a pivotal role in drafting the United States Constitution and is viewed as principal author of the Bill of Rights.

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