The Bill of Rights is Born

On this day in 1791, the Bill of Rights, comprised of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, becomes law upon the State of Virginia’s ratification. The amendments were designed to protect the basic rights of US citizens, guaranteeing the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and exercise of religion; the right to fair legal procedure and to bear arms; and that powers not delegated to the federal government would be reserved for the states and the people.

Proposed following the oftentimes bitter 1787–88 battle over ratification of the US Constitution, and crafted to address the objections raised by Anti-Federalists, the Bill of Rights are built upon those protections in several earlier documents. These include the Mayflower Compact, Virginia Declaration of Rights and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, along with earlier civic codes such as the Magna Carta of 1215.

While the original Constitution, comprised of seven Articles, took the form of an owner’s manual, providing for a chief executive, a bicameral legislature, courts, taxing and treaty powers, among others, the Amendments went far deeper. Eventual Amendments included protections of religion, speech and the press (First Amendment); the right to bear arms as a militia (Second Amendment); privacy of the home and person (Fourth Amendment); trial rights and other features of criminal and civil proceedings (Amendments Five, Six, Seven and Eight); federalism and powers reserved to the states (Tenth Amendment).

Although James Madison’s proposed amendments included a provision to extend the protection of some of the Bill of Rights to the states, the amendments that were finally submitted for ratification applied only to the federal government. The door for their application upon state governments was opened in the 1860’s, following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the early 20th century both federal and state courts have used the Fourteenth Amendment to apply portions of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments, through the principle of incorporation.

There are several original engrossed copies of the Bill of Rights still in existence, such as the one below on permanent public display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It remains housed in an illuminated, climate-controlled blast-and-Trump-proof case, which automatically lowers through the floor when the 45th President* enters the building, or in the event of a similar threat to the written promise of America.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.