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Pop quiz: What is the Bill of Rights?

Don't worry — your right to be wrong is protected.

By Rich_Maloof Dec 14, 2012 4:50PM

Quick pop quiz: What is the Bill of Rights? What do the rights outline? When did they become law?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Photo: Dieter Spears/Getty ImagesIf you don’t remember exactly what the Bill of Rights is or what it does, it’s probably also news to you that today is “Bill of Rights Day.” Saturday Dec. 15, 2012 marks the 221st anniversary of the Dec. 15, 1791 signing into law of what many historians consider the most dynamic and important document in our nation’s history. That’s saying something in the face of serious competition from The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

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The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The amendments were drafted by James Madison, who at the time was a member of the House of Representatives. Back in the 1780s, a number of state reps had begun chafing at the apparent limitless power given to the federal government by the Constitution, and wanted the individual rights of their constituencies protected. Madison led this charge by recommending changes to the actual wording of the Constitution. This notion — then as now — was looked upon as heresy.

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Madison and his colleagues reconsidered their approach and instead submitted the changes as amendments, which could be viewed as “improvements” to the nearly sacred document. The initial 17 amendments were whittled down via voting to a basic ten. These were approved state by state, and with Virginia ratifying on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights went into effect.

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When people get up in arms over government intrusion into their lives, it’s the Bill Of Rights that they’re figuratively waving in defiance. The bill covers all the individual liberties that define America’s system of government at its best: establishing freedom of speech and freedom of the press; keeping government out of religion; the right to bear arms; the right to a fair and speedy trial; protection against unreasonable search and seizure of one’s home; and the prevention of cruel and unusual punishment in criminal sentences.

The Constitution has since been amended an additional 17 times, but these first ten have provided U.S. citizens with the rights that we exercise, but perhaps don’t fully appreciate, every day.

Photo: Dieter Spears/Getty Images
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