The Bill of Rights

Public Domain Image from NARA (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html)

You might know that the first 10 amendments (changes) to the Constitution of the United States are called the Bill of Rights. What does this mean? What rights do we have? And why didn’t they put these rights in the Constitution in the beginning?

The Constitution is very basic, but it includes instructions for making changes to it. The people who wrote it understood that Americans might need to add or change things later, so they created the legal process for these changes.

The states approved the Constitution, but a lot of people were still confused about what the law said. They needed to know exactly what they could do and what they could not do. They also wanted to know what the government could and could not do. The Bill of Rights was written in 1791 to clarify (make more clear) the rights, powers and limitations of the people, the states and the federal government of the United States.

What rights are described in the Bill of Rights?

Here are the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Bill of Rights:

  1. The First Amendment says that the people of the United States have freedom of religion, speech, the press (journalists/news people), peaceful assembly and petition of the government. That means that if I don’t like the government, I can say that I don’t like the government. I can call or write letters to my Congressmen to complain or ask for changes, or I can go with a group to Washington, D.C. to say that we are unhappy about something. I can also practice any religion I want or no religion at all.
  2. The Second Amendment allows us to own guns. However, each state has its own, more specific rules.
  3. The Third Amendment says that the government cannot require people to let soldiers live in their private homes during a time of peace.
  4. The Fourth Amendment says that the police cannot search your home, take anything from you, or arrest you without a VERY good reason. They must have a warrant (an order from a judge) or probable cause. Probable cause means that they have an excellent reason to think you have done something illegal.
  5. The Fifth Amendment explains the correct ways to do things in court. This amendment also says that the government cannot take your private property. If they want it, they have to pay you a good price for it.
  6. The Sixth Amendment gives more rules about trials in court. It says you have the right to a speedy (fast) trial by an impartial (fair) jury in the district (city or county) where the crime was committed. It also says that if you are arrested and on trial, you have the right to know what police believe you did, you have the right to a lawyer, and you have the right to witnesses both against you and in your favor. That means they will talk to people who say you did something illegal AND people who say you didn’t do anything wrong.
  7. The Seventh Amendment provides for a trial by jury in civil cases. If you do something illegal and get arrested, you may have a criminal trial. In a civil case, nobody gets arrested. Usually, civil cases are disagreements between two people (or companies). For example, if you have a contract with a company, and you pay the company for some work, but the company does not do its job, you can go to court in a civil case to try to get your money back. The Seventh Amendment says that a jury can decide who is right and who is wrong in this kind of case.
  8. The Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines and bail. This means that if you do something illegal, your punishment must be equal to your crime. For example, you cannot go to jail for 30 years because you stole something small from Target.
  9. The Ninth Amendment just says that the Bill of Rights is not a complete list, and that any rights not included should not be denied.
  10. The Tenth Amendment says that if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t say anything about a right, each state can decide its own rules. For example, there is nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights about driving laws, so each state has its own rules about how old you must be to get a license, how often you must get your car inspected, etc.

Your Turn

For more information about the Bill of Rights, check out this site. Then, for fun, print and complete this crossword puzzle about the First Amendment!

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