The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. Passing the Constitution established the national government and basic laws. The Constitution also gave fundamental rights to American citizens. However, Americans decided that there was a need to add some amendments to this document in order to improve it. For this reason 27 amendments have been added to the US Constitution. The most famous are its first ten amendments, widely known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments written by James Madison, after a long period of ratification by individual states, entered into force on 15 December 1971. The Bill of Rights specifies important and fundamental rights of the citizens of the United States. Nevertheless, one could argue that the most relevant issue is that these amendments listed limits on the powers of the government because since that time the people were more important than the government itself. “Under the limited-government model, the Bill of Rights prevents the government from acting in certain areas. In so doing, it preserves certain rights to the people that will allow them to democratically control the actions of government.”1
Adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was the subject of the dispute between Federalists and Anti – Federalists. Federalists claimed that there was no need for the Bill of Rights since the states and people have the powers that were not given to the national government. On contrary, Anti – Federalists stated that these 10 amendments were necessary in order to protect freedoms and liberties of individual people.2 Over the centuries, the role of the establishment of the Bill of Rights seems to be very important since each amendment played a significant role in the life of the American society not only in the past, but also nowadays.
The First Amendments states that “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.”3 It guarantees various freedoms to American citizens that “the Founders saw as the natural right of individuals”4 such as freedom of religion and expression. It also prohibits the government from establishing one religion of the whole country or the exaltation of one religion over the other one. That means the separation of church and the state. Moreover, the government cannot interfere with these freedoms what allows people to express their minds the way they want to. They can say, write or think whatever they wish and the government have to accept that. However, “courts have often allowed restrictions on speech when those restrictions are necessary to protect the rights of others and yet not necessary to limit government.”5 It means that the government can only limit these right if it, for instance, causes violence. Otherwise, it is forbidden.
The Second Amendment points out, among other things, that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”6 The amendment ensures a gun ownership to American citizens for their own purposes, such as self-defense. People can have a weapon at home or carry it with them. The national government has to agree with it, even though this right might be dangerous since weapons could be used for criminal purposes.
The Third Amendment states that “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.”7 It means that the government must not force the citizens to housing the military members during the peacetime. What is interesting, the amendment allows the government to do that, only in case of war, when the law states that is right.
The next, Forth Amendment gives “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.”8 The main point is to protect people’s privacy and “freedom from arbitrary governmental intrusions.”9 However, the government still can seizure and search places and people upon issuance of warrant. The amendment forbids only these seizures and searches, which according to law, are unreasonable.10
The Fifth Amendment protects American citizens from a coercion to witness against himself in a particular case.11 The term “pleading the fifth” means a privilege to not answer any questions that might be incriminated for a person. The person cannot be punished for using this privilege. The person cannot be forced to witness at his own trial. However, if s/he decides to be a witness, he or she resigns from that privilege.
The Sixth Amendment states that “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 defense.”12 In other words, the government is obliged to ensure the opportunity for a speedy public trial for criminals, the right to a lawyer, to know their accusers, or charges and evidences against them. The national government has to guarantee that the criminal prosecutions are legitimate and fair for all American citizens.
The Seventh Amendment “continues a practice from English common law of distinguishing civil claims which must be tried before a jury (absent waiver by the parties) from claims and issues that may be heard by a judge alone. It only governs federal civil courts and has no application to civil courts set up by the states when those courts are hearing only disputes of state law.”13 The amendment verifies a jury trial in civic cases. It prohibits courts from inverting a verdict of the jury.
The Eight Amendment to the US Constitution points out that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”14 It means that, firstly, the government is not allowed to impose bails and fines on people and secondly to use very cruel punishments. Even if it comes to the people who have done something really terrible and cruel. The government must respect human life. What is worth mentioning, is the fact that by cruelty in the Eight Amendment we mean the cruelty in the method, not the cruelty as a part of actual suffering.15 The penultimate, Ninth Amendment defines that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”16 The main aim of this amendment is to ensure people that the Bill of Rights does not assure only the freedoms or rights that it mentions. Americans have rights that are not enumerated in the US Constitution and thus in the Bill of Rights. It indicates that other rights can exist. The role of the government is to not breach or violate them, even though they are not legally written in the Constitution.
The last Ten Amendment states that “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.”17 It basically means that the national government does not have all the powers. The powers that are not written in the Constitution are given to states or people. This explains the balance between the national, federal government and state governments and shows a very limit of the national government.
To sum up, The Bill of Rights has been written in order to keep the government in its prescribed position and ensure that American, democratic society is able to direct, monitor and criticize its own government.18 Thomas Jefferson, the president of the United States once said that ” a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”19 These words means that the Bill of Rights has been adopted to limit the government that cannot be above the people. It limits the government from becoming so powerful by giving people rights and freedoms that the Founders perceived as their natural rights. The people and the government ought to be on the same level, equal.
1 Patrick M. Garry, Limited Government and the Bill of Rights (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 65.
2 “Bill of Rights,” Bill of Rights Institute, , accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/bill-of-rights/.
3 U.S. Const. amend. I.
4 “Bill of Rights,” Bill of Rights Institute, , accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/bill-of-rights/.
5 Patrick M. Garry, Limited Government and the Bill of Rights (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 56.
6 U.S. Const. amend. II.
7 U.S. Const. amend. III.
8 U.S. Const. amend. IV.
9 “Fourth Amendment,” LII / Legal Information Institute, accessed January 12, 2018,
10 Patrick M. Garry, Limited Government and the Bill of Rights (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 62.
11 U.S. Const. amend. V.
12 U.S. Const. amend. VI.
13 “Seventh Amendment,” LII / Legal Information Institute, , accessed January 12, 2018,
14 U.S. Const. amend. VIII.
15 Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber.” Oyez.
https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/329us459 (accessed January 12, 2018).
16 U.S. Const. amend. IX
17 U.S. Const. amend. X
18 Patrick M. Garry, Limited Government and the Bill of Rights (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 63.
19 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12, 7 August 1787 – 31 March 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 438–443.