Bill of Rights

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Financial, Acronyms, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Related to Bill of Rights: English Bill of Rights, Bill of Rights 1689

Bill of Rights

A declaration of individual rights and freedoms, usually issued by a national government.

A list of fundamental rights included in each state constitution.

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791, which set forth and guarantee certain fundamental rights and privileges of individuals, including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; guarantee of a speedy jury trial in criminal cases; and protection against excessive bail and Cruel and Unusual Punishment. As a fundamental guarantee of individual liberty, the U.S. Bill of Rights (see appendix volume for primary document) forms a vital aspect of American law and government. It establishes many legal principles that have had a decisive effect upon law and society, including the functioning of the criminal justice system, the separation of church and state, and the exercise of Freedom of Speech.

The concept of a bill of rights as a statement of basic individual freedoms derives in part from the English Bill of Rights, passed in 1689 (see appendix volume for primary document). This document, which was created after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, established the terms by which William and Mary were accepted as king and queen of England. It forbade the monarchy to suspend laws, raise taxes, or maintain an army without consent of Parliament. It also declared that freedom of speech in Parliament could not be challenged, protected those accused of crimes from "excessive bail" and "cruel and unusual punishments," and provided a number of other privileges and freedoms (1 Will. & Mar., Sess. 2, C. 2).

Nearly a century later, seven of the 13 states of the newly independent United States of America adopted a bill of rights as part of their state constitutions, and the remaining six included elements of the English Bill of Rights in the bodies of their constitutions. Virginia, the first state to adopt a bill of rights, passed the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. Drafted largely by George Mason, Virginia's declaration became a model for later state bills of rights and ultimately for the federal Bill of Rights, and it remains a part of that state's constitution.At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution used the English Bill of Rights and state bills of rights as resources as they sought to define the fundamental principles and institutions of U.S. government. However, they declined to add a bill of rights to the Constitution, on the grounds that the Constitution itself provided adequate protection from intrusive government. Indeed, the Constitution contained some elements of the English Bill of Rights, including Congress's exclusive power to maintain armed forces and, on the federal level, to pass laws and impose taxes. The Constitution also incorporated other specific rights traditional in English Law, including that of Habeas Corpus, which protects against unlawful imprisonment. However, the Constitution made no mention of other basic rights of constitutional government such as freedom of speech, press, and religion, and the rights of those accused of crimes.

During the Constitution's ratification process, from 1787 to 1789, state ratifying conventions pointed out the lack of such fundamental guarantees in the Constitution and submitted lists of proposed constitutional amendments. The Federalists, who supported ratification of the Constitution, eventually conceded and promised to attach a bill of rights to the document. The leading contributors to the creation of these amendments—which came collectively to be called the Bill of Rights—were George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, with Madison serving as their principal author and sponsor on the floor of the U.S. House during the First Congress.

On September 25, 1789, 12 amendments to the Constitution were submitted to the states by the required two-thirds majority of Congress. Two of the amendments—which dealt with congressional pay and the Apportionment, or assignment, of congressional seats to the states—were voted down by the states. The other ten amendments were ratified by December 15, 1791.

Scholars have described the Bill of Rights as protecting three different types of Human Rights: (1) rights of conscience, including the First Amendment's freedom of speech and religion; (2) rights of those accused of crimes, such as the Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive bail and fines; and (3) rights of property, such as the Fifth Amendment's provision that no one may be deprived of property without Due Process of Law.

One vital issue in the history of the interpretation of the Bill of Rights has concerned its application to the states. In the case of Barron ex rel. Tiernan v. Mayor of Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243, 8 L. Ed. 672 (1833), the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. However, by the 1920s, the Court, using a principle known as the Incorporation Doctrine, had begun to apply selected elements of the first ten amendments to the states. According to this doctrine, elements of the Bill of Rights may be applied to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which holds that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Thus in 1925 the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech applied to the states as well as the federal government (Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 45 S. Ct. 625, 69 L. Ed. 1138). Incorporation gave the Supreme Court wide power to strike down state laws that it deemed to be in violation of the Constitution's Bill of Rights.

By the end of the twentieth century, nearly all provisions of the Bill of Rights had been declared binding on the states. Only five provisions of the Bill of Rights had not been applied to the states: (1) the Second Amendment's right to bear arms; (2) the Third Amendment's prohibition against involuntary quartering of troops; (3) the Fifth Amendment's requirement of Grand Jury indictment in capital cases; (4) the Seventh Amendment's provision for trial by jury in civil cases; and (5) the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive bail and fines.

States are free to provide additional protections beyond those offered in the federal Bill of Rights, but they may not reduce Civil Rights or liberties to standards lower than those of the federal Constitution.

Other countries have passed bills of rights that differ from those of England and the United States. In 1789 the Constituent Assembly of France passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document that stated the philosophical principles of the French Revolution. Canada adopted the Act for the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1960 (8-9 Eliz. II, ch. 44, § 1[c]-[f] [Can.]) and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (Can. Const. [Constitution Act, 1982] pt. I).

Further readings

Amar, Akhil Reed. 1998. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Coleman, John. 1998. What You Should Know about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Carson City, Nev.: Bridger House.

Lewis, Thomas T., ed. 2002. The Bill of Rights. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press.

Monk, Linda R. 2000. The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide. Alexandria, Va.: Close Up Pub.

Reese, Lee F. 1986. George Mason's Part in Framing the Constitution of the U.S.A. and the Bill of Rights. Lexington, Ky.: Lexington Books.


Constitutional Amendment; Eminent Domain; English Bill of Rights (Appendix, Primary Document); Equal Protection; Freedom of Association and Assembly; Freedom of the Press; Privilege Against Self-Incrimination; Religion; Right to Counsel; Search and Seizure; Speedy Trial; U.S. Bill of Rights (Appendix, Primary Document). See also entries on each amendment to the U.S. Constitution (e.g., First Amendment).

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights, which consists of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was drafted by the first Congress of the new government in 1789 and went into effect on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the amendments.

The Bill of Rights followed a tradition in Anglo-American law of drawing up a list of basic rights to which all the people in the state were entitled. The English Bill of Rights, enacted in 1689, included the right to petition the government with grievances, the right to trial by jury, and the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishments. In 1774 the First Continental Congress drew up a Declaration of Rights, which included such liberties as freedom of the press and a prohibition against standing armies in peacetime.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, enacted in 1776, quickly became the model for other states. By 1781 eight states had enacted bills of rights, and four others had included statements guaranteeing individual rights either in the prefaces to their constitutions or in supplementary statutes. The Articles of Confederation did not include a bill of rights, however. The drafters of the Articles believed that the protection of individual rights was a state responsibility.

At the 1787 constitutional convention, edmund randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts sought unsuccessfully to include a bill of rights in the new constitution. Most delegates took the view that the state bills of rights would continue to protect individual rights at the state level and that Congress would resist any attempts to infringe upon individual liberties at the federal level.

When the lack of a bill of rights became an issue in the ratification process, James Madison promised that the first Congress would enact a bill of rights as part of its business. As a member of the first House of Representatives, Madison reminded the members of this pledge. He drafted much of the final document, using Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights as a model.

The Bill of Rights plays a central role in the protection of civil liberties and civil rights. When enacted, the ten amendments applied only to the actions of the federal government. In a long series of decisions, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that almost all the provisions in the Bill of Rights also apply to the states. Therefore, the Bill of Rights safeguards the basic rights of individuals from encroachment by all levels of government. Source: The United States Government Manual.

Bill of Rights


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.


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


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


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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bill of Rights

n. The first 10 amendments to the Federal Constitution demanded by several states in return for ratifying the constitution, since the failure to protect these rights was a glaring omission in the Constitution as adopted in convention in 1787. Adopted and ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights are:

First: Prohibits laws establishing a religion (separation of church and state), and bans laws which would restrict freedom of religion, speech, press (now interpreted as covering all media), right to peaceably assemble and petition the government.

Second: A "well regulated Militia," being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." This is often claimed as giving the unfettered right of individuals to own guns, but is actually limited to the right of "the" people to bear arms as militiamen.

Third: No quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner's consent.

Fourth: No unreasonable search and seizures, no warrants without probable cause, and such warrants must be upon "oath or affirmation" and describe the place to be searched or the person or things to be taken.

Fifth: Prohibits criminal charges for death penalty ("capital punishment") or any other "infamous" crime (felony) without indictment by a Grand Jury except under martial law in the time of war or "public danger"; no person may be tried twice for the same offense; no one may be compelled to be a witness against himself ("taking the Fifth"), no one can be deprived of life, liberty or property without "due process of law"; no taking of property for public use (eminent domain) without just compensation. These rights have become applicable to states through the 14th Amendment as well as state constitutions.

Sixth: Rights of criminal defendants to a speedy and public trial, impartial local jury, information on the nature and cause of accusation, confront witnesses against him, right to subpena witnesses, and have counsel.

Seventh: Juries may be demanded in civil cases (over $20) and the jury shall be trier of the fact in such cases as required by Common Law.

Eighth: No excessive bail, excessive fines or "cruel and unusual punishment." Note that denial of bail in murder cases or when the accused may flee is not "excessive," and capital punishment (like the gas chamber) may be cruel but not necessarily unusual.

Ninth: Stating these rights shall not be construed to deny that other rights are retained by the people.

Tenth: Powers given to the United States (central government) and not prohibited to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

bill of rights

a document, frequently but not essentially, of high standing in constitutional law, which sets out protections for the citizen, usually protection from the state itself Some notable examples now follow:

In the UK, an Act of the English parliament in 1689 on the assumption of the throne by William and Mary. It was a reaction to the excesses of the Stuart kings and declared the pre-eminence of Parliament and the constitutional restraints on the monarch. Parliament's right to levy money and free speech in Parliament were expressly provided for. Excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments were forbidden. It went on to provide for the Protestant succession.

In Scotland the claim of right was to the same effect. It is not, however, like the two more modern documents now considered.

In the USA, the first ten amendments of the Constitution of the USA. They protect, inter alia, the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to assembly and procedural rules in criminal matters. Although they would appear to relate only to federal matters, the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted to protect

Blacks after the Civil War, provides two clauses that have enabled the US Bill of Rights to extend to the states. The ‘due process’ clause has been treated as allowing the basic rights to be treated as applying to states, thus the Supreme Court has struck at state abortion legislation. The ‘equal protection’ clause is directed towards discrimination and has allowed the court to interfere with state education policy.

In Canada, the Canadian Bill of Rights, properly so called, was enacted in 1960. It was, and is, a code of conduct to be followed in the creation of federal legislation - it is similar to the US Bill of Rights and protects traditional freedoms. Subsequently there was enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is entrenched in the constitution in Part I of the Constitution Act 1982 (Canada). The Bill of Rights remains law, and there are matters in the Bill that are not in the Charter, and vice versa. The Charter is founded on a categorization of civil liberties into ‘egalitarian liberties’, relating to equality under law; ‘legal liberties’, covering protection under the criminal code; and ‘political liberties’, like freedom of speech, assembly, etc. New categories of rights were included: ‘mobility rights’ and ‘linguistic rights’, which protect people's right to use their language if it is French or English. The Charter goes further and provides for education in the first language learned and understood; it provides aboriginal rights. See also HUMAN RIGHTS.

Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

BILL OF RIGHTS. English law. A statute passed in the reign of William and Mary, so called, because it declared the true rights of British subjects. W. & M. stat. 2, c. 2.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
References in periodicals archive ?
(59) The only significant reference that I can find to what we call the Bill of Rights between 1792 and 1833 came in Aaron Burr's treason trial, where his lawyer, Edmund Randolph, told the Court that admitting a certain affidavit would violate the Confrontation Clause.
Civil rights group Liberty says scrapping the HRA and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights would weaken the rights of all Britons, offering them less protection against "powerful interests."
The courts saw this problem when they interpreted and applied the Canadian Bill of Rights. When asked to enforce the Bill of Rights, courts usually concluded that the federal government could always later change its mind according to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.
The Bill of Rights for Airline Passengers was adopted following the conduct of three public hearings by the transportation and trade departments.
Adhering to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is optional right now, but a White House spokesperson said the initiative has been endorsed by the companies that provide more than 90 percent of online behavioral ads, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL.
That fulfilled the constitutional requirement of ratification by three-quarters of the states, and the Bill of Rights became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
If the court were to rule for the city and uphold the ban, it would undermine one of the most significant developments in legal history: the ''incorporation'' of the Bill of Rights (with minor exceptions) under the Fourteenth Amendment to apply to the states.
First the Reconstruction Congress was defending civil rights and the application of the Bill of Rights to the states while the slower-moving Supreme Court fought such moves.
The group, comprising MPs and peers, wants an independent committee set up to consult the public on a Bill of Rights.
Over the last half of the 20th century, the Bill of Rights has loomed large in American politics, with the Supreme Court striking down numerous federal, state and local laws as being contrary to some right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights has been traditionally a body of civil and political rights (e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to a fair trial) which are enforceable through the courts.