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The purpose of this article is to simplify one of the most important tenets of our constitution - The Bill of Rights - so that kids can easily understand it. But before we do that, it is important that we define certain terms that are frequently used in the Bill of Rights.

Bill - In context of the Constitution, a bill is a proposal that can become a law, if it is approved by the legislature.

Let us take an example to understand the concept of bill in simpler terms. Suppose, Jack and Jill propose to their parents that their monthly allowances be increased from $30 to $50. They come up with valid reasons to substantiate their proposal, like high price of burgers, expensive movie tickets, etc. Their parents consider the proposal and after holding discussions, they agree to their demands. So, we can say that the "Bill of Pocket Money", proposed by Jack and Jim (proposers), was approved by their parents (legislature).

Amendments - You might have been advised by your parents or friends to "make amends" with someone you had a spat. In other words, you are advised to improve the existing situation. Similarly, an amendment is made in the Constitution to improve or revise the existing laws.

Rights - The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a right as including, "A thing one may legally or morally claim; the state of being entitled to a privilege or immunity or authority to act." Simply put, you have the right to get good education, right to eat unadulterated food, right to have clean roads, right to get treatment when you fall sick, etc. Some of these rights are provided to you by your parents and some, by the government.

Bill of Rights: A Brief History

After gaining independence from Great Britain, America needed a new constitution. Statesmen (important leaders) from all over America met in Philadelphia to frame the Constitution. However, there were concerns among some states that the Constitution will give absolute power to the central government, which could again create a state of tyranny in the country. James Madison - a Virginian statesman, who would later go on to become the Fourth President of the United States - proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution. Out of these twelve, ten were ratified (approved) by the states. These amendments came to be known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights states that following:

(Original text has been italicized)

Bill of Rights
Passed by Congress: 25 September 1789
Ratified: 15 December 1791

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment guarantees the citizens of the United States that,
  • The government will not discriminate between any religion, and every individual is free to practice his religion.
  • Every citizen has the right to express his opinion freely.
  • Citizens can demonstrate peacefully against the government to seek solution of their grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The content of the Second Amendment has made it contentious among lawmakers. The amendment allows every citizen to bear arms, so that they can defend themselves. Shooting incidents across the country have pushed lawmakers to rethink on this amendment.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Kids may find the Third Amendment baffling, but when Britain ruled America, it was common to accommodate soldiers in the houses of civilians, often without the consent of the owner. To ensure that such practice is not followed in future, this amendment was introduced. According to this amendment, in the times of peace, a soldier cannot be kept at somebody's home without the permission of the owner. This provision can be overturned in the case of a war, but even then, the Congress will have to make adequate laws for it.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This amendment states that nobody has the permission to search a person and his property without a warrant. In case a citizen is suspected of being involved in a crime, the warrant should clearly specify the places and the persons to be searched.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment is aimed at,
  • Giving every citizen the right to defend himself.
  • Protecting citizens from wrong accusations.
  • Ensuring that nobody is put on trial without being charged by a Grand Jury.
  • Ensuring that a defendant is not forced to testify against himself. In other words, a defendant can choose to remain silent during his trial.
  • Ensuring that a person is not charged for the same offense twice.
  • Ensuring that a defendant is not harmed in any way, and he enjoys all the rights provided to him by the government.
  • Ensuring that the private property of a person is not taken away from him by the government without providing him a reasonable compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The Sixth Amendment ensures that,
  • A person accused of a crime will get a speedy trial.
  • The government or the police cannot keep a person in jail without putting him on trial.
  • The accused has the right to a public trial, so that the trial is transparent.
  • The accused is able to confront the people who say that they have witnessed him breaking the law.
  • The accused is provided with a lawyer who will represent him.
  • The jury is composed of judges of the same area where the crime has been committed.

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Civil cases, in which a person has been sued for more than $20, will be heard by the jury and their decision will be final.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Eight Amendment is an extension of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment, and ensures that a person is not subjected to torture in prison. People can get bail after paying a reasonable fine.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Simply put, this Amendment explicitly states that citizens are granted several other rights which are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment states that if there is something which is not specified by the Congress, then the power rests with the state government or the people.