The United States’ constitutional democracy operates on the premise that the government should serve and protect its citizens. In addition to bodily protection and the provision of basic services, civil liberties comprise a basic component of the government’s responsibilities. Civil liberties ensure that citizens have freedom from interference in personal pursuits. The Constitution of the United States originally included key provisions for civil liberties, though the most recognized guarantees came from later amendments.
Original Constitutional Provisions
One of the Founding Fathers’ primary concerns was to limit the government’s ability to arbitrarily imprison and punish citizens. "Habeas corpus" refers to the necessity of a valid legal reason for imprisonment. Trial by jury requires a burden of proof substantial enough to convince an impartial group of peers of the accused’s guilt. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution provides for both of these guarantees, while Article I, Section 9 protects against two other judicial abuses, ex post facto laws and bills of attainder. An ex post facto law criminalizes an act retroactively, while a bill of attainder allows a legislature to sidestep the judicial process to dispense its own punishments.
The Bill of Rights
Opponents of the original Constitution argued that the document did not do enough to restrict the possibility of governmental tyranny. The Bill of Rights, 10 amendments that contain mutually supportive civil liberty guarantees, won approval in 1791. The Bill of Rights broadly defines its guarantees to allow courts some liberty in interpretation. The Fourth through Eighth Amendments clarify the judicial process, while the Ninth and Tenth protect rights that remained undefined in the language of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from co-opting private property to house troops, while the Second Amendment protects citizens’ rights to own firearms.
The First Amendment
The most notable component of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, serves as the broadest guarantee of civil liberties contained in the Constitution. The First Amendment contains six clauses that establish several fundamental rights. The establishment clause protects against the adoption of a state religion, while the free exercise clauses allows citizens to pursue a religion of their own choice. The free press clause prevents against government control of the media and is closely related to the free speech clause. The assembly clause allows citizens to peaceably organize, while the petition clause holds that the government must attend to citizens’ grievances.
The Fourteenth Amendment
Three amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War served to abolish slavery and provide for the rights of former slaves. One of them, the Fourteenth Amendment, not only granted former slaves citizenship, it contained a broad general extension of civil liberties. The due process clause places a burden on states to protect personal liberties. This is an important detail, since prior guarantees applied only to the federal government. According to the Fourteenth Amendment, states could pass only those laws that applied equally to all citizens. In addition to this, the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of due process extended the judicial protections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to state governments.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Constitution of the United States of America -- Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Civil Liberty
- The Rutherford Institute: Habeas Corpus
- Cornell University Law School: Wex Legal Dictionary -- Habeas Corpus
- Cornell University Law School: Legal Information Institute -- CRS Annotated Constitution -- Bills of Attainder
- Cornell University Law School: Legal Information Institute -- Bill of Rights
- National Archives and Records Administration: The Charters of Freedom -- Bill of Rights
- Encyclopedia Brittanica: Bill of Rights
- Encyclopedia Brittanica: First Amendment
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