Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrate the Bill of Rights

Why do we have a Bill of Rights? What difference does it make?

A brief history

In the summer of 1787, as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated how to establish a system of government that would secure the rights of citizens better than that under the Articles of Confederation, very little time was devoted to discuss the inclusion of a declaration of individual rights against government in the new Constitution.

The very absence of a bill of rights in the proposed constitution was a dangerous signal to many Americans, who had come to believe that such declarations were essential to mark out the limits of government power and protect the liberties of citizens from tyranny.

Americans before the Revolution had been familiar with the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which listed the rights of subjects against the crown, including no standing armies, freedom of speech in Parliament, no excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments, and the right to jury trial. After declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776, the people of the American states wrote their own constitutions, every one of which included the protection of certain liberties, either in the body of the text itself, or listed in the form of a "bill" at the beginning or preamble. 

In the state ratification debates that followed the Convention, Federalists (who supported the proposed Constitution) and Anti-federalists (who opposed it) offered their arguments for or against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. Federalists generally believed that a bill of rights was unnecessary, if not dangerous to the liberties of the people. Anti-federalists, on the other hand, launched vociferous objections to the Constitution, claiming that without a declaration of reserved rights, no people could long remain free, even under a well-constructed system of government established with good intentions.

Thomas Jefferson, although not an Anti-federalist, believed that a bill of rights was necessary to "retouch the canvas" of the proposed Constitution, thus creating a system of government that would best fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which states that the first object of good government is to secure the rights of its citizens.

A fascinating series of letters with his fellow Virginian and close friend James Madison, one of the chief authors of the Constitution followed. Jefferson persuaded Madison to eventually agree that a Bill of Rights should be added. However, Madison’s reason were different from those of Jefferson. Madison understood that such an addition would build confidence among the people in their new government, and allay their fears that, without a bill of rights, all that Americans had fought for during the Revolution—limited self-government, equality and liberty— would be jeopardized. 

Resource material for teaching the Bill of Rights

  • The EDSITEment lesson Creating the Bill of Rights: Retouching the Canvas focuses on the arguments either for or against the addition of a Bill of Rights between 1787 and 1789. By examining the views of prominent Americans in original documents, students will see that the issue at the heart of the debate was whether a Bill of Rights was necessary to secure and fulfill the objects of the American Revolution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Students will also gain an understanding of the origins of the Bill of Rights and how it came to be part of what Thomas Jefferson called "the American mind," as well as a greater awareness of the difficulties that proponents had to overcome in order to add the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.
  • This interactive map shows which amendments were approved by each state, as well as other information regarding the creation of the Bill of Rights.  

Related lessons on the First Amendment right of free speech

  • Do you recognize freedom of speech when you see or hear it? In Freedom of Speech: Know it When You See It students learn to recognize freedom of speech within their community, state, country, and world by considering Norman Rockwell’s icon WWII poster Freedom of Speech.

Student interactive activities: Getting to Know the First Amendment

Amendments V and VI

  • Twelve Angry Men: Trial by Jury as a Right and as a Political Institution focuses on the right to a trial and also addresses related constitutional provisions in Amendments V, VI, and XIV, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the right to counsel. More broadly, the lesson considers the jury system as one of the most important political institutions for democratic self-government. The jury system educates citizens about the law and legal process, helping them to understand their duties as citizens and in the best case, improves their deliberations as citizens.