The Bill of Rights

“The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

With these words as preface, on December 15, 1791 Congress sent ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution to the states for their ratification. This month we celebrate these amendments collectively known as the ‘Bill of Rights.’ It is no exaggeration to say that the Bill of Rights is one of the most quoted of our laws. Come along with EDSITEment to learn about the history and meaning of this important and fascinating document and its place within the constitutional system.

What kind of rights does the Bill of Rights guarantee and how does it protects these rights? Many people think first of the First Amendment and of Freedom of Speech as the fundamental right in our democratic system of government. Teachers, parents and students can learn more about this right which is extended to all citizens in the EDSITEment lesson, The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country? This lesson introduces elementary school aged children to the right of free speech in a constitutional democracy. Students can also distinguish between instances of free speech that are and are not protected by the Constitution in the EDSITEment lesson, Regulating Freedom of Speech

Discussion of the right and limits of free speech leads to the broader subjects of the rights- and responsibilities- of citizenship under the Constitution and the role of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of these rights. The National Constitution Center, a new EDSITEment reviewed website, offers an interactive Constitution where students can discover how the Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. Students can search for topics from abortion to the war powers of the president. They can also use the interactive timeline of key dates and events that mark more than 200 years of our constitutional history. These timeline entries, taken as a whole, tell the evolving story of the U.S. Constitution and the continuing role that it plays in our lives.

Another excellent EDSITEment lesson for learning about the Bill of Rights and the Constitution is The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union? The roots of constitionalism go back hundreds of years. In the EDSITEment lesson Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution, students can trace the extent to which the provisions and principles of the Great Charter find expression in the American document.

Having learned about some of the rights that this document guarantees to Americans, your students may want to know some of the people behind the famous document. President James Madison is often referred to as the "Father of the Constitution" for his success in shepherding the document through its various stages from drafting in Philadelphia to ratification. You and your students can learn more about James Madison and his life in the EDSITEment lessons devoted to our fourth president, James Madison: From Father of the Constitution to President. You and your students can also delve more deeply into the life of President Madison on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource American President.

While Madison is generally considered the man who guided the Constitution through ratification, he was also wary of the abuse of power of which all governments are capable. Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson, wanted to protect fundamental civil rights and liberties that he believed could be abridged or abused by the national government. Thus, Madison's Bill of Rights which begins with the words “Congress shall make no law …” can be thought of as a series of amendments that secure fundamental civil liberties and impose further checks and balances upon the power of the federal government.

During the colonial period colonists living in the Americas had little or no recourse against policies—however oppressive—taken up by the government in England, and by King George III. Their ability to speak freely, to publish critical articles in the press, to organize demonstrations, and to protest those policies were greatly curtailed. The American colonists' response to these aspects of British rule, as well as the effect of that response on the eventual shape of the Constitution, is the subject of another EDSITEment lesson plan, Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances. This lesson helps students understand the conflicting goals that the framers of the Constitution sought to balance. On the one hand, they attempted to limit the arbitrary exercise of power that the colonists had experienced under British rule; and, on the other, they addressed a concern, which had become widespread by about 1787, that the Articles of Confederation had produced a federal government too weak to effectively rule the new nation. To learn more about the ways in which the Constitution sought to counter the perceived inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, written in 1781 in reaction to years of British rule, see the EDSITEment lesson plan, The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?

Virginian delegate James Madison believed that the Bill of Rights would ensure the acceptance of the Constitution by both the Federalists and anti-Federalists. Moreover, he believed the Bill would inspire citizens to unite against any future attempts of government to infringe upon natural rights. On October 31, 1788, Madison wrote that the Bill would be "a good ground for an appeal to the sense of community" and would "counteract the impulses of interest and passion." Today, this bill serves not only as a protector of American rights but also as a source of controversy as citizens continually attempt to stretch its limitations to include a wider range of freedoms.

Suggested Activities

For Younger Students

For younger students, teachers and parents may wish to lead them through the EDSITEment Launchpad that is available here for K–5 students. Using EDSITEment web resources, younger students will begin to lay a foundation for understanding for the Bill of Rights.

For Older Students

What kinds of rights are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights? In this activity teachers, parents, and students will examine the rights that are delineated in the Bill of Rights. Using this EDSITEment Launchpad, students will read each of the amendments in order to determine which of the ten amendments included in the Bill of Rights would be applicable. Not every amendment will be covered in this exercise, and some amendments may be covered twice—so keep a sharp lookout!

Answer key:

  1. Answer: 3rd Amendment
  2. Answer: 1st Amendment
  3. Answer: 7th Amendment
  4. Answer: 8th Amendment
  5. Answer: 4th Amendment
  6. Answer: 1st Amendment
  7. Answer: 5th Amendment
  8. Answer: 6th Amendment

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