“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.”
In 1941, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 15 to be Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. In the present climate of political repression in which we find ourselves, the importance of the first ten amendments to our constitution deserves to be recognized.
During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, opponents repeatedly charged that as drafted the Constitution would open the way to tyranny by the central government.
Remembering the violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution, the Founding Fathers demanded a “bill of rights” that would spell out protections for individual citizens. Several state conventions in their ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.
James Madison originally introduced the amendments to the first United States Congress as a series of legislative articles. Prior to his proposing the amendments, Madison acknowledged there was discontent with the Constitution as written:
“I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed disliked it because it did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power: nor ought we to consider them safe, while a great number of our fellow citizens think these securities necessary.”
The Bill of Rights was adopted by the House of Representatives on August 21, 1789, formally proposed by joint resolution of Congress on September 25, 1789, and upon ratification by three quarters of the States, came into effect as Constitutional Amendments on December 15, 1791. While twelve
amendments were passed by Congress, only the ten we call The Bill of Rights, were originally passed by the states. Of the remaining two, one was adopted as the Twenty-seventh Amendment and the other still technically remains pending before the states.
The Bill of Rights originally only included legal protection for land-owning white men; it excluded African Americans and women. It took additional Amendments and decisions by the Supreme Court to extend the same rights to all U.S. citizens.
The First Amendment is especially referenced these days; most often because of recent attempts to bring religion into the political discussion or to curb freedom of speech and the press and peaceable assembly. As we observe the sometimes successful attempts to insert religious belief into school curricula and the excesses of police brutality; pepper-spraying, tear-gassing and arrests of peaceful protestors and the prevention of the press from photographing the incidents, the importance of The First Amendment is especially apparent.
Congress OF THE United States
held at the City of New York, on Wednesday
the Fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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 insure the
beneficent ends of its institution
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of
Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two
thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to
the Legislatures of the several States, as Amendments to the Constitution of
the United States, all or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths
of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of
the said Constitution; viz.:
ARTICLES in addition to, and
Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by
Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to
the fifth Article of the original Constitution.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the
rules of the common law.
bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual
enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to
deny or disparage others retained by the people.
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.
Upon ratification by three quarters of the States, these ten articles came into
effect as Constitutional Amendments on December 15, 1791 and are known as The Bill of Rights.
Stuart Wilber believes that living life openly as a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or
Allied person is the most powerful kind of activism. Shortly after meeting his partner in Chicago in 1977, he opened a gallery named In a Plain Brown Wrapper, where he exhibited cutting edge work by leading artists; art that dealt with sexuality and gender identification. In the late 1980’s when they moved to San Clemente, CA in Orange County, life as an openly gay couple became a political act. They moved to Seattle 16 years ago and married in Canada a few weeks after British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. Although legally married in some countries, they are only considered domestic partners in Washington State. Equality continues to elude him.
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