The Bill of Rights and American Politics

The inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution was not a foregone conclusion when the Framers met at Philadelphia in 1787. Indeed, it was a major concession on the part of the Federalists to agree to its addition to the Constitution after it was ratified. Nonetheless, most state constitutions already included bills of rights and the principles ultimately outlined in the Bill of Rights in the national Constitution were strongly supported by the people. Most of the colonists had come to America, at least in part, in search of religious, political and economic liberty. They had fought a war to defend those liberties and they were not about to give them up to their new national government. Today, it is almost unimaginable that the Constitution would not include a Bill of Rights.

While understanding the historical origins of the Bill of Rights helps us understand their significance in the American political system, it is even more important to understand how the the rights and liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights have been interpreted and applied in the more than two centuries since they were adopted. While the Congress and the President have, at various times, claimed to have Constitutional authority to interpret and shape the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has played the most significant role in doing so. Indeed, it has been the Supreme Court, empowered by the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that has gradually applied the Bill of Rights to the states. This process is often referred to as "selective incorporation." To date, the Court has required state and local governments to comply with all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights except the Second, Third, Seventh, and Tenth Amendments and the Grand Jury requirement of the Fifth Amendment.

As you read about various aspects of the Bill of Rights, then, you will read about several Supreme Court decisions that have shaped our understanding of them and the way they have been applied and enforced in America's political history.