Bill of Rights

  • Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the document would open the way to tyranny by the strong central government. They demanded a “bill of rights” that would specify the rights of individual citizens.

In September 1789, the First Congress of the United States proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution, addressing the most frequent criticisms. Articles 3 through 12, which three-fourths of the states ratified on December 15, 1791, constitute the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and are known as the Bill of Rights. The original second article, concerning the compensation of members of Congress, finally became law on May 7, 1992. Congress never passed the original first amendment, which concerned the number of constituents for each representative.

The Bill of Rights defines citizens’ rights in relation to the government, including guarantees many Americans now understand as central to their way of life: the four freedoms of speech, religion, the press, and political activity. The Bill of Rights also encompasses principles fundamental to the American legal system: the rights to due process of law, trial by jury, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment and self-incrimination.

The Bill of Rights, along with the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, is on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.

Download a high-resolution version of this document from the National Archives’ Online Public Access Database.

Past Featured Records
  • Report concerning the death of Abraham Lincoln
    Report concerning the death of Abraham Lincoln

    On the evening of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln during a performance of ‘Our American Cousin’  at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. Booth chose a moment with loud laughter from the audience, which obscured the sound of the pistol. The... Read more

  • Unbroken: Records from Louis Zamperini’s Incredible World War II Story
    Unbroken: Records from Louis Zamperini’s Incredible World War II Story

    On May 27, 1943, Army Air Force bombardier Louis “Louie” Zamperini’s B-24 airplane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The former U.S. Olympian survived, only to face months adrift at sea and years as a Japanese POW. His fate unknown in the U.S., Louie was declared dead... Read more

  • George Washington’s First Annual Message
    George Washington’s First Annual Message

    On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered his first annual message to Congress at Federal Hall in New York City. With this speech, Washington established the precedent of delivering a formal address to Congress to report on the state of the Union.

    He praised the accomplishments... Read more

  • Surrender? “Nuts!” Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s 1944 Christmas Message to his Troops
    Surrender? “Nuts!” Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s 1944 Christmas Message to his Troops

    In mid-December 1944, Allied forces were surprised by a massive German offensive through the Ardennes Forrest that created a “bulge” in the Allied lines. Caught in what would become known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Armed... Read more

  • Judiciary Act of 1789
    Judiciary Act of 1789

    Article III of the Constitution of the United States established the Supreme Court but left open to Congress the ability to create lower courts. During the first session of Congress in April 1789, just one day after the Senate had achieved a quorum, the first... Read more