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.

Click here to read all 27 ratified amendments to the Constitution.

Past Featured Records
  • Credentials of Jeannette Rankin, the First Congresswoman
    Credentials of Jeannette Rankin, the First Congresswoman

    In 1916 – four years before before the 19th Amendment granted women across the country the right to vote – Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress as a Representative from Montana.

    Rankin was sworn into office on April 2, 1917, having presented this credential as evidence that she... Read more

  • George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 1789
    George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 1789

    On April 30, 1789, George Washington placed his hand upon a Bible and took the oath as the first President of the United States. The oath was administered on a second-floor balcony of Federal Hall, above a crowd assembled in the streets to witness this historic event. President... Read more

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” Speech
    President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” Speech

    At 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers and torpedo planes attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, catapulting the United States into World War II. In less than 2 hours, the fleet was devastated, and more than 3,500 Americans were either killed... Read more

  • National Museum of African American History and Culture Act
    National Museum of African American History and Culture Act

    Following decades of work to promote and feature the contributions of African Americans, the Act to establish the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was authorized by Congress in 2003. The museum, which will house 36,000 artifacts, officially opens on the National... Read more

  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010
    Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010

    During World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces established a policy that discharged homosexuals regardless of their behavior. In 1981, the Defense Department prohibited gay and lesbian military members from serving in its ranks with a policy that stated, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” In... Read more