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Bill of Rights

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noun
a formal statement of the fundamental rights of the people of the United States, incorporated in the Constitution as Amendments 1–10, and in all state constitutions.
(sometimes lowercase) a similar statement of the fundamental rights of the people of any nation.
(sometimes lowercase) a statement of the rights belonging to or sought by any group: Our student bill of rights would include the right to dress as we please.
an English statute of 1689 confirming, with minor changes, the Declaration of Rights, declaring the rights and liberties of the subjects and settling the succession in William III and Mary II.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What is the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights is the document that contains the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which state the basic rights of all American citizens.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

The Bill of Rights contains the first 10 amendments. While the rest of the Constitution states what the government can do, the Bill of Rights says what it cannot do and, as a result, it guarantees basic rights to all Americans. More detailed information of the specifics of each amendment can be found on their own pages, but here are some of the rights stated in the Bill of Rights:

  • Freedom of speech: Americans are free to express their opinions and criticize the government without fear of retaliation from the government.
  • Freedom of religion: Americans are free to practice any religion they want. There is no state religion in the United States.
  • Right to bear arms: The Second Amendment allows Americans to own weapons when they follow local and state laws.

The amendments in the Bill of Rights have been involved in many Supreme Court cases and have limited the government’s power. Today, many of the rights and freedoms that Americans cherish are still protected by law in the Bill of Rights.

Why is Bill of Rights important?

The first records of bill of rights come from around 1689 and refer to a collection of rights under England’s monarchy. The first records of Bill of Rights to refer to a potential list of basic rights of American citizens come from around 1787, during the Constitutional Convention.

The original text of the US Constitution states what powers the federal government has and how it is to be organized. The text doesn’t say, however, what protected rights American citizens have or what the government is not able to do. The Antifederalists, who supported a limited government, were worried that the government would be too powerful and be capable of tyranny if the law did not place limits on it. The Federalists argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary because, to them at least, it was obvious that Americans had basic rights that the government couldn’t take away. The Federalists also feared that any list of rights would be too small and that it would be assumed that Americans only had the rights that were specifically stated in the Constitution.

During the debates surrounding the creation of the Constitution, the Antifederalists, such as Thomas Jefferson, clearly opposed any constitution that didn’t state what rights citizens had that the government could not deny them. Without Antifederalist support, there were not enough votes in Congress to pass the bill. So, the two sides agreed that the Constitution would be ratified under the condition that the Bill of Rights would be immediately added to it.

By December 1791, the states had ratified 10 of 12 amendments Congress had passed. These 10 amendments became the Bill of Rights and were added to the Constitution.

Did you know … ?

One of the amendments originally stated in Madison’s proposal was passed by Congress in 1789 but not ratified by the states until 1992! What is now the Twenty-seventh Amendment was passed by Congress alongside the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, but it failed to achieve ratification by the states when it was originally submitted.

What are real-life examples of Bill of Rights?

National Archives

Pictured above is the Bill of Rights, which is located in the National Archives Museum, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Most Americans learn about the Bill of Rights in school. Americans are very protective of the rights given to them by this important document.

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Bill of Rights contains the first twelve amendments to the US Constitution.

How to use Bill of Rights in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights

noun
an English statute of 1689 guaranteeing the rights and liberty of the individual subject
the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, added in 1791, which guarantee the liberty of the individual
(in Canada) a statement of basic human rights and freedoms enacted by Parliament in 1960
(usually not capitals) any charter or summary of basic human rights
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Among other provisions, they protect the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press (see First Amendment) (see also First Amendment); restrict governmental rights of search and seizure; and list several rights of persons accused of crimes (see Fifth Amendment).

notes for Bill of Rights

After the new Constitution was submitted to the states in 1787, several approved it only after being assured that it would have a bill of rights attached to it. Accordingly, these amendments were passed by the first Congress under the Constitution and were ratified by the states in 1791.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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