The United States Bill of Rights

United States #1312 (1966)

United States #1312 (1966)

In 1941, 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, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. Proposed following the oftentimes bitter 1787–88 battle over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and crafted to address the objections raised by Anti-Federalists, the Bill of Rights amendments add to the Constitution specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights, clear limitations on the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and explicit declarations that all powers not specifically delegated to Congress by the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people. The concepts codified in these amendments are built upon those found in several earlier documents, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the English Bill of Rights 1689, along with earlier documents such as Magna Carta (1215).

On June 8, 1789, Representative James Madison introduced nine amendments to the Constitution in the House of Representatives. Among his recommendations, Madison proposed opening up the Constitution and inserting specific rights limiting the power of Congress in Article One, Section 9. Seven of these limitations would become part of the ten ratified Bill of Rights amendments. Ultimately, on September 25, 1789, Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution and submitted them to the states for ratification. Contrary to Madison’s original proposal that the articles be incorporated into the main body of the Constitution, they were proposed as supplemental additions (codicils) to it. Articles Three through Twelve were ratified as additions to the Constitution on December 15, 1791, and became Amendments One through Ten of the Constitution. Article Two became part of the Constitution on May 5, 1992, as the Twenty-seventh Amendment. Article One is technically still pending before the states.

Although 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 1860s, following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Bill of Rights had little judicial impact for the first 150 years of its existence; in the words of Gordon S. Wood, “After ratification, most Americans promptly forgot about the first ten amendments to the Constitution.” The Court made no important decisions protecting free speech rights, for example, until 1931. Historian Richard Labunski attributes the Bill’s long legal dormancy to three factors: first, it took time for a “culture of tolerance” to develop that would support the Bill’s provisions with judicial and popular will; second, the Supreme Court spent much of the nineteenth century focused on issues relating to intergovernmental balances of power; and third, the Bill initially only applied to the federal government, a restriction affirmed by Barron v. Baltimore (1833).

In the twentieth century, however, most of the Bill’s provisions were applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment — a process known as incorporation — beginning with the freedom of speech clause, in Gitlow v. New York (1925). In Talton v. Mayes (1896), the Court ruled that Constitutional protections, including the provisions of the Bill of Rights, do not apply to the actions of American Indian tribal governments.

The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. Initially, the First Amendment applied only to laws enacted by Congress, and many of its provisions were interpreted more narrowly than they are today. The Free Press Clause protects publication of information and opinions, and applies to a wide variety of media. In Near v. Minnesota (1931) and New York Times v. United States (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected against prior restraint — pre-publication censorship — in almost all cases. The Petition Clause protects the right to petition all branches and agencies of government for action. In addition to the right of assembly guaranteed by this clause, the Court has also ruled that the amendment implicitly protects freedom of association.

The Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. The concept of such a right existed within English common law long before the enactment of the Bill of Rights. First codified in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 (but there only applying to Protestants), this right was enshrined in fundamental laws of several American states during the Revolutionary era, including the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. Long a controversial issue in American political, legal, and social discourse, the Second Amendment has been at the heart of several Supreme Court decisions.

The Third Amendment restricts the quartering of soldiers in private homes, in response to Quartering Acts passed by the British parliament during the Revolutionary War. The amendment is one of the least controversial of the Constitution, and, as of 2016, has never been the primary basis of a Supreme Court decision.

The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. It was adopted as a response to the abuse of the writ of assistance, which is a type of general search warrant, in the American Revolution. Search and seizure (including arrest) must be limited in scope according to specific information supplied to the issuing court, usually by a law enforcement officer who has sworn by it. The amendment is the basis for the exclusionary rule, which mandates that evidence obtained illegally cannot be introduced into a criminal trial. The amendment’s interpretation has varied over time; its protections expanded under left-leaning courts such as that headed by Earl Warren and contracted under right-leaning courts such as that of William Rehnquist.

The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy and self-incrimination and guarantees the rights to due process, grand jury screening of criminal indictments, and compensation for the seizure of private property under eminent domain. The amendment was the basis for the court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which established that defendants must be informed of their rights to an attorney and against self-incrimination prior to interrogation by police.

The Sixth Amendment establishes a number of rights of the defendant in a criminal trial: to a speedy and public trial, to trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of criminal charges, to confront witnesses, to compel witnesses to appear in court, and to assistance of counsel. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court ruled that the amendment guaranteed the right to legal representation in all felony prosecutions in both state and federal courts.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees jury trials in federal civil cases that deal with claims of more than twenty dollars. It also prohibits judges from overruling findings of fact by juries in federal civil trials. In Colgrove v. Battin (1973), the Court ruled that the amendment’s requirements could be fulfilled by a jury with a minimum of six members. The Seventh is one of the few parts of the Bill of Rights not to be incorporated (applied to the states).

The Eighth Amendment forbids the imposition of excessive bails or fines, though it leaves the term “excessive” open to interpretation. The most frequently litigated clause of the amendment is the last, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. This clause was only occasionally applied by the Supreme Court prior to the 1970s, generally in cases dealing with means of execution. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), some members of the Court found capital punishment itself in violation of the amendment, arguing that the clause could reflect “evolving standards of decency” as public opinion changed; others found certain practices in capital trials to be unacceptably arbitrary, resulting in a majority decision that effectively halted executions in the United States for several years. Executions resumed following Gregg v. Georgia (1976), which found capital punishment to be constitutional if the jury was directed by concrete sentencing guidelines. The Court has also found that some poor prison conditions constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as in Estelle v. Gamble (1976) and Brown v. Plata (2011).

The Ninth Amendment declares that there are additional fundamental rights that exist outside the Constitution. The rights enumerated in the Constitution are not an explicit and exhaustive list of individual rights. It was rarely mentioned in Supreme Court decisions before the second half of the twentieth century, when it was cited by several of the justices in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). The Court in that case voided a statute prohibiting use of contraceptives as an infringement of the right of marital privacy. This right was, in turn, the foundation upon which the Supreme Court built decisions in several landmark cases, including, Roe v. Wade (1973), which overturned a Texas law making it a crime to assist a woman to get an abortion, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which invalidated a Pennsylvania law that required spousal awareness prior to obtaining an abortion.

The Tenth Amendment reinforces the principles of separation of powers and federalism by providing that powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited to the states, are reserved to the states or the people. The amendment provides no new powers or rights to the states, but rather preserves their authority in all matters not specifically granted to the federal government.

George Washington had fourteen handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights made, one for Congress and one for each of the original thirteen states. The copies for Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania went missing. The New York copy is thought to have been destroyed in a fire. Two unidentified copies of the missing four (thought to be the Georgia and Maryland copies) survive; one is in the National Archives, and the other is in the New York Public Library. North Carolina’s copy was stolen from the State Capitol by a Union soldier following the Civil War. In an FBI sting operation, it was recovered in 2003. The copy retained by the First Congress has been on display (along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence) in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom room at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. since December 13, 1952. In 1991, the Virginia copy of the Bill of Rights toured the country in honor of its bicentennial, visiting the capitals of all fifty states.

After fifty years on display, signs of deterioration in the casing were noted, while the documents themselves appeared to be well preserved. Accordingly, the casing was updated and the Rotunda rededicated on September 17, 2003. In his dedicatory remarks, President George W. Bush stated, “The true [American] revolution was not to defy one earthly power, but to declare principles that stand above every earthly power — the equality of each person before God, and the responsibility of government to secure the rights of all.”

Scott #1312, a 5-cent stamp commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was first placed on sale in Miami Beach, Florida, on July 1, 1966, to coincide with the National Education Association convention. Pulitzer prize winner Herbert L. Block designed the stamp. He is better known as “Herblock,” the name he used in signing editorial cartoons for the Washington Post and for syndication in more than 200 newspapers. The dominant feature of the shield-shaped design shows two hands in conflict. On the right is a gauntleted fist, suggestive of “the knock on the door at night,” associated with tyranny, and on the left appears a bare upraised hand symbolizing the guarantees of freedom in the Bill of Rights. The design is named “Freedom Checking Tyranny”.

The carmine, dark and light blue stamp was printed on the Giori press and issued in panes of fifty, perforated 11. An initial printing of 115 million stamps was authorized.

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