On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution), became the supreme law of the land. Today, we celebrate 226 years of enjoying these foundational rights as Americans and humans.
But these rights weren’t always so ingrained in our society. Even after our constitution was in place, our founders were working to secure these 10 freedoms from government.
The Bill of Rights consists of a list of limits to the federal government’s power, and protections of our natural rights.
It extends Americans the following liberties:
- The freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion;
- The right to keep and bear arms;
- No forced quartering of soldiers during peacetime;
- Right to a fair trial;
- Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures;
- Protection against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments; and
- The assurance that powers not given to the federal government be reserved for the states and the American people.
In 1789, James Madison felt that the new, existing Constitution gave the government too much power.
Inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, thus protecting the rights of citizens mostly likely to be infringed upon by a tyrant.
After a healthy debate, 12 articles were initially approved by Congress and sent to receive the two-thirds approval from the states necessary for ratification.
The Bill of Rights was ratified when Virginia became the 10th out of 14 states to approve 10 out of 12 articles. These 10 amendments became the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights Over Time
Over the course of the past two centuries, rights outlined in the Bill of Rights have repeatedly come under fire.
Among the most-frequently challenged right is the freedom of speech.
Challenges to free speech date back to America’s earliest days as a nation and remain prevalent today.
In 1798, President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which criminalized statements critical of federal officials.
The Sedition Act was not only deeply unpopular – it was a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
While the law expired in 1801, it wasn’t officially deemed a violation of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court until 1964. It’s one of the oldest– but far from the only– instances of infringement on free speech.
In the 1965 landmark case, Lamont v. Postmaster General, the Supreme Court declared a federal law requiring the Postmaster General to detain unsealed political propaganda to be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
Free speech is essential to a free society. It enables people to make their voices heard and express their ideas freely and openly in a marketplace of ideas.
Veterans have a special relationship to the U.S. Constitution: they have sworn an oath to protect and defend it.
We have the men and women in the armed services to thank – for protecting our freedom both at home and abroad and for defending our rights enumerated in the Constitution throughout our nation’s history.
Today, on the 226th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, we celebrate our constitutionally protected rights and we recognize the importance of defending these rights to ensure that our legacy of freedom in America endures for generations to come.
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