The United States Constitution has been called a living document because it can be changed in two ways: formal amendment, and information adjustments and decision making. On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States submitted 12 amendments to the state legislatures for ratification. The first two concerned each state’s representative’s number of constituents, and congressmen’s compensations, but they were not ratified. In 1791, three-fourths of the state legislatures quickly ratified Articles 3 to 12, which constitute the Bill of Rights.
The amendments, inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, placed fundamental restraints on the power of the federal government over ordinary citizens: Congress cannot limit free speech, even unpopular expression, or interfere with religion; deny the people the right to keep and bear arms; require the quartering of troops in private homes; or allow homes to be searched by federal authorities without search warrants. Persons accused of federal crimes cannot be made to testify against themselves; nor can the federal government deny citizens trial by jury; or deprive them of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The central government cannot impose excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments. Rights in the Constitution are not exhaustive; people have all the rights not listed; and those powers not given to the federal government or denied the states should belong solely to the states or the people.
The Bill of Rights protected citizens from abuses of the federal government only, not from unfair state laws. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. It provided that no state may deny its citizens either due process of law or equal protection of the laws. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Supreme Court used the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to expand the protections of the first ten amendments. Therefore, the Bill of Rights now applies to state as well as federal laws.
Although the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, the framing of the Bill of Rights was in itself one of the most momentous actions of any Congress, with regard to amending the Constitution, in the nation’s history. Never before had any single document enumerated so clearly and emphatically the rights of private citizens. The Bill of Rights has become a landmark in the history of human liberty.
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