The U.S. Constitution: Amendments 1 to 10: Meaning of the Bill of Rights

  • The Bill of Rights, as proposed March 4, 1789, submitted to the States, Sept. 25, 1789. Articles 3-12 became amendments I-X of the Constitution, Dec. 15, 1791.

    The Bill of Rights, as proposed March 4, 1789, submitted to the States, Sept. 25, 1789. Articles 3-12 became amendments I-X of the Constitution, Dec. 15, 1791. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • Retired educator Bruce Simmons of Aurora, who writes a guest column on the U.S. Constitution

    Retired educator Bruce Simmons of Aurora, who writes a guest column on the U.S. Constitution

By Bruce Simmons
Eleventh in a series
Posted1/4/2023 6:00 AM

This is the 11th in a series of essays about the U.S. Constitution.

A historian could tell a significant portion of English and American Colonial history using the Bill of Rights as a guide.


A defense attorney could use it to explain the major reasons many defendants in criminal cases can appeal decisions against them.

Finally, an educated citizen can explain why Americans can rest easy knowing their rights let them live without fear of prosecution for crimes they did not commit, or fear of the government.

Here is our Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Amendment I says Congress cannot make laws banning a religion, interfere with free speech or the press, or prevent lawful assembly.

Americans can also petition the government for change. However, there is a catch.

Americans have these freedoms if they practice them in the proper time, place, and manner. Common sense must prevail. A religion cannot practice human sacrifice. A crowd cannot stop traffic. The press can be sued for defamation.

Many court cases involve citizens who are arrested on charges of violating time, place, and manner restrictions.

Amendment II says Americans can bear arms and states can have militias (National Guards). Whether the two are associated is the source of much debate. Time has allowed for the development of more sophisticated and lethal arms. That is another source of debate, along with how to control their access.

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Amendment III states that Americans do not have to quarter troops (allow them to stay in their homes) unless in emergencies prescribed by law. British and Hessian troops were forced upon American households during the Revolutionary War.

Amendment IV states that homes, papers, bodies, and private properties cannot be searched without probable cause and, in a formal search, a warrant identifying the proper address and what is to be seized must be approved by a judge.

Amendment V states that a grand jury must indict a person for capital or other serious felonies (unless there is a military charge when we are at war and national security is at risk).

Double jeopardy is not allowed, which means one cannot be tried for the same crime twice. However, if new evidence is uncovered, a new trial can be ordered.


A person does not have to testify against himself ("Taking the Fifth"). Finally, the government must compensate citizens whose property must be taken for public use.

Part of Amendment VI is the phrase uttered by a police officer charging a person with a crime. They must state the offense, explain that they can hire an attorney who can question any witness against them in a court of law, and must have a speedy trial by an impartial jury in the district in which they are accused.

There are instances when an accused individual may waive a jury.

Additional laws, not in the amendment, cover the amount of time after which a person cannot be charged. It is important to note that in a U.S. court a person is presumed innocent.

Amendment VII deals with major civil suits (noncriminal cases). A case can be tried by a judge, or the claimants can ask for a jury.

Only state courts can hear appeals and significant money must be in question. There are small claims courts available to citizens, where a judge's decision cannot be overturned.

Amendment VIII outlaws excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. Bail hearings are usually associated with a pleading process. Punishments are decided by a judge after input from counsel and juries, but guidelines are present in the law.

Amendments IX and X are general in nature.

Amendment IX states that the Framers knew Americans should possess many rights and that they would not, and could not, state them all.

Over time, new rights would emerge and would be protected by our government.

Amendment X was quite simple. Any powers and responsibilities not identified in the federal Constitution are reserved for the states.

Examples might be vehicle and driver's licensing, professional certification like lawyers or hairdressers, elections, public schooling regulations and teacher certification, or the way democratic governments are set up in the states (for instance, Nebraska has a one-house legislature).

The next essay will detail other significant amendments.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years' experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

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