The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

The History of the Bill of Rights Since 1791

Interpretations of the Bill of Rights have not remained static since its adoption. Over the course of its history, the courts have interpreted many of the first ten amendments in ways that are very different from what the Framers had in mind when they were originally adopted. We will discuss those individual interpretive changes as we discuss each of the first ten amendments.

But before we do that, we must discuss what is probably the greatest general change that has occurred in the interpretation of the Bill of Rights in the past 200 years, a change that is called the “Incorporation Doctrine.” It is through this doctrine that, following the passage of the 14th Amendment, most of the individual rights named in the Bill of Rights have been “incorporated against the states.” This means that most of the Bill of Rights now protect us from incursions on our individual rights whether committed by our state governments or the national government.

There are many ways in which the meaning of individual rights named in the Bill of Rights has changed since the time they were adopted. For instance, the 1st Amendment guarantee of “freedom of speech” has been interpreted more broadly to mean “freedom of expression.” And some rights not explicitly mentioned in any of the first ten amendments, such as a right to privacy, have been identified as constitutional rights.