The Bill of Rights – Now a Cornerstone – Once a Best Kept Secret

The Bill of Rights is among our nation’s most admired documents, guaranteeing broad personal liberties and inspiring some of the federal courts’ most famous and polarizing cases. And yet for well over a century, the Bill of Rights was one of America’s best kept secrets.

Ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, a day now celebrated annually as Bill of Rights Day, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were a response to broad public fears that a new national government might run roughshod over individuals and states.

James Madison
James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights in 1789, to calm public fears about the U.S. Constitution, but courts largely ignored it until the 1920s.

On paper, the amendments protected such diverse rights as freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, the right to a speedy trial by jury, and freedom from unreasonable searches. In modern times, Bill of Rights cases have expanded the right to counsel (Sixth Amendment), broadened protection against self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment), redefined the right to bear arms (Second Amendment), and upended political spending restrictions (First Amendment).

None of this seemed likely in our nation’s early history. Once the Bill of Rights was ratified, it virtually sat on a shelf for 130 years.

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