During Constitution Week, Americans are encouraged to learn about our nation’s guiding legal document.

The Constitution lays out the structure of the federal government. By no means did the founders assume the document would be perfect in 1787, so they established a route for amendments. Many of these 27 amendments give us the everyday rights we enjoy:

The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments, all ratified into law in 1791.

  • 1st: Guarantees the freedoms of speech, press and religion, and the right to assemble and petition the government. (1791)

  • 2nd: Guarantees the right to own and bear arms. (1791)

  • 3rd: Citizens cannot be forced to quarter soldiers during times of peace. This is the least-litigated amendment in the Bill of Rights. (1791)

  • 4th: Citizens are protected from seizure and search without a search warrant and probable cause. (1791)

  • 5th: Prohibits abuse in legal procedures by establishing rules for indictment, eminent domain and grand jury. Guarantees due process. Protects citizens from self-incrimination and double jeopardy. (1791)

  • 6th: Guarantees a fair and speedy jury trial in criminal cases and the rights to know the accusation, the accuser and to find legal counsel and witnesses. (1791)

  • 7th: Reserves the rights to jury trial depending on civil case, and prohibits cases already examined to be re-opened by another court. (1791)

  • 8th: Forbids excessive bails and fines and punishment that is unusual or cruel. (1791)

  • 9th: A catchall that reserves citizens’ rights not specifically mentioned by the U.S. Constitution. (1791)

  • 10th: A catchall that reserves powers not explicitly given to the federal government under the constitution, nor prohibited to a state, to the people and the states. (1791)
  • 11th: Establishes state sovereign immunity. States are protected from lawsuits by citizens living in another state or foreigners that do not reside within the state. (1795)

  • 12th: Modifies and clarifies the procedure for electing vice presidents and presidents. Prior to this, the vice president was the presidential election runner-up, creating a tense rivalry and setting up the potential for palace intrigue and possible coups. (1804)

The three “Civil War amendments” were passed in its aftermath:

  • 13th: Abolishes slavery. Ends involuntary servitude except for convicted criminals. (1865)

  • 14th: Elucidates the Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Clause, Citizenship Clause and clauses dealing with the Confederacy and its ex-officials. (1868)

  • 15th: Grants male suffrage regardless of race or previous status as slaves. (1870)

The four Progressive Era amendments were spurred by social and political reform of the early 1900s:

  • 16th: Establishes income tax. (1913)

  • 17th: Changes the selection of senators to direct vote rather than election by a state’s legislature. (1913)

  • 18th: Alcohol prohibition. (1919)

  • 19th: Women’s suffrage. (1920)


  • 20th: The “lame duck” amendment sets the date of term starts for Congress and the president. (1933)

  • 21st: Repeals Prohibition, which had been established by the 18th Amendment. (1933)

  • 22nd: Limits the president to two terms in office. This was is direct response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served three terms starting in 1933, and had been elected to a fourth when he died in 1945. (1951)

  • 23rd: Gives citizens in the District of Columbia three electors for presidential elections. (1961)

  • 24th: Abolishes the poll tax or any other taxes limiting suffrage. (1964)

  • 25th: Establishes succession of the president, settling the ambiguity after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. (1967)

  • 26th: Lowers voting age to 18. (1971)

  • 27th: Denies changing the salaries of Congress members until the beginning of the next term. (1992) This was first proposed with the Bill of Rights, but took 202 years, seventh months and 10 days to be ratified, finally on May 5, 1992.

The Bill of Rights
AP Documents BillofRights  

The Bill of Rights approved by Congress on Sept. 25, 1789, initially had 12 articles. Articles 3 through 12 became the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution.

Article 1 reads, "After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.." It is still open for eventual ratification.

Article 2 reads, "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened," and was ratified as the 27th Amendment in 1992, after 203 years.