The Bill of Rights: An Overview
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
No one has ever died of boredom reading the Bill of Rights. But generations of students have imagined they were close. Taken on their own, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution (wake up) make for pretty dry reading. You'd never guess that when they're translated into English, you might find yourself arguing about them over the dinner table.
Actually, the Bill of Rights probably started off as an argument over the dinner table. After the American colonies won the revolution against England, they had to answer a pretty basic question: What do we do now? In response, the leaders packed their bags for Philadelphia, where they came up with a scheme for running the country. You could take a trip to Philadelphia, and see for yourself what they created: a wrinkled piece of paper called the U.S. Constitution.
But your travel dollars would be better spent visiting Washington, D.C. There you'd see what the colonial leaders created a huge national government. The Constitution laid out huge roles for three key players in American life: the U.S. President; the U.S. Congress (including the House of Representatives and the Senate); and the U.S. Supreme Court.
That's where the dinner argument comes in. Not everyone around that Philadelphia dinner table wanted to make the U.S. government so powerful. The distinguished diners were divided into two groups, the Federalists and the Antifederalists. As their name implies, the Federalists wanted a strong national (also known as federal) government that would keep the new country from falling apart. The Antifederalists, as their name also implies, hated that idea. They argued that a powerful federal government would have the power to boss around the states. Not to mention the average citizen. Where in the Constitution, they asked, did it say a person had the right to speak his mind? To get a fair trial? Nowhere. So the Antifederalists refused to okay the Constitution until the Federalists added a list of freedoms that the U.S. government could not take away from individual Americans, a bill of rights.
Sorry, No Rights for You, Ms. Citizen
In December 1791, the 10 Amendments become law, and the Bill of Rights was ready for action. Individuals who were being denied their rights could just step right up, complain to the Supreme Court, remind the Justices of the relevant Amendments, and receive justice.
That was the theory, anyway. In reality, for the first 100 years of its life, the Bill of Rights was sort of dozing and didn't really help anyone. There were two big reasons why. The first was deep prejudice; picture again the people around that constitutional dinner table white men who owned property. When they wrote the Bill of Rights, most had no intention of protecting the rights of the people who needed protection most: blacks, women, and poor people.
Reason number two that the Bill of Rights was so weak: During the 1800s, judges ruled again and again that the Bill of Rights related only to U.S. laws, not to state laws. That meant that under the Bill of Rights you could sue the U.S. government if it made a law limiting your freedom of speech, for example. But if your own home state told you to shut up, that was the state's business.
But all this changed in 1868, when the 14th Amendment put the Bill of Rights on its feet. Written after the Civil War, the Amendment gave rights to blacks and declared: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges . . . of citizens of the U.S.; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
Can You Repeat That?
In English, that meant that the Supreme Court could get involved if a state deprived you of freedom of speech, or refused to give you a fair trial, or subjected you to cruel or unusual punishment.
Still, the country, and the Supreme Court, moved slowly. In most of the 1900s, for example, states still got away with denying blacks their rights. But in the 1950s and '60s, America changed. Using the Fourteenth, civil-rights workers convinced the Court that states could not prevent blacks from voting, living in certain neighborhoods, and attending all-white schools.
That Means You
During this same time, other groups made use of the 14th Amendment. Suspected criminals won more rights. And even several kids appeared before the Justices, demanding freedom of speech and other basic rights.
That's where you come in. You may never end up in the Supreme Court, but odds are some Supreme Court decisions will end up in your home. In the next few years, the Justices will judge again the legality of abortions. They'll decide if a drug dealer can live in your neighborhood. And they'll decide who has the right to look at your computer files.
Adapted from Scholastic Search.