Not only did the United States Constitution help set out how the new nation should be governed, it is also widely regarded as a seminal document for the freedoms it outlines for people in the U.S. The Constitution grants rights to people living in the country whether they are citizens or immigrants. The U.S. Constitution was one of the first documents to outline such broad freedoms, and many say it influenced revolutions all over the world, including the French Revolution, which occurred only a few years after the American Revolution.
Civil liberties in the Constitution include the right to freely assemble and the right to privacy. Many civil rights, however, had to be fought for and won in famous Supreme Court cases.
The Constitution guarantees several civil liberties, including the writ of habeas corpus and the right to free speech. Many protections for civil liberties have been added in subsequent amendments since the Constitution was originally ratified.
What Are Civil Liberties?
Believe it or not, there is actually a difference between civil liberties vs. civil rights. While most experts believe the Constitution protects both civil liberties and civil rights, many make a distinction between the two. Usually, civil liberties are defined as limitations that have been put on the government in order to protect individual freedom. One well-known example is how the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech by asserting that the government should not infringe upon it. Other civil liberties examples were written into the Constitution itself. Whenever you are talking about an instance where a person should be able to act freely without interference from the government, you are talking about a civil liberty.
Put simply, the most basic definition of civil liberties vs. civil rights is: Civil liberties are things that the government won’t do, whereas civil rights involve cases of government action. When you’re talking about civil rights, you’re talking about things the government will do.
A deeper look at civil liberties vs. civil rights shows us that civil rights usually fight any discrimination that might occur based on race, gender, age or any other characteristic. Many civil rights had to be fought for because they are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. For example, the segregation of people based on race, which was prevalent for much of the nation’s history, is now considered unconstitutional because it is a violation of civil rights. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the government had to step in to desegregate schools in many states. If desegregation was a civil liberty, it would require a hands-off approach from the government to guarantee freedom, but that is not the case. Segregation is an instance of infringement on civil rights, as shown by the government need to step in to guarantee individual freedoms.
What Civil Liberties Are in the Constitution?
The civil liberties in the Constitution are rooted in the misuse of power in the past. The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the memory of kingly abuses close at hand. They wished to protect their new country from such tyranny, and so the Constitution was written in a large part to protect its people from possible government overreach. The civil liberties in the Constitution are the result of this desire to limit government power.
Civil Liberties Examples
Many civil liberties examples are stealthy. They don’t look like they have much to do with rights or liberties at all because their wording focuses on those in power and not on the common man. A good example of this comes in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the limits of power mentioned directly affect the people. The three limitations on the power of Congress set forth in Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution prohibit Congress from passing bills of attainder, prevent ex post facto laws and enforce the writ of habeas corpus. But what does that all mean?
Bills of attainder are bad news, and it’s shocking that such a thing was ever commonplace. A bill of attainder allows someone to be convicted or punished for a crime without a fair trial. The King of England can and did use bills of attainder against his enemies, and the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent their nation from taking after the old excesses of power. The Bill of Rights later added more protection against such injustice. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial in front of a jury of your peers. The 14th Amendment, later adopted in 1868, includes the Due Process Clause, which says that legal proceedings must be as fair and impartial as possible. The writ of habeas corpus, which is also part of Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, guarantees that someone cannot be locked up without a trial.
Rights and Liberties in the Bill of Rights
Although the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Bill of Rights wasn’t ratified until two years later in 1791. The Founding Fathers sought to limit the power of the government with the Constitution, but after much arguing (as the Founding Fathers were apt to do), they agreed to create the Bill of Rights in order to make the rights of the citizens of the new nation more explicit. Most of the rights it includes were things the Founding Fathers believed that American citizens already had. They were Enlightenment thinkers influenced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the rhetoric of free will and self-determination that was gaining popularity at the time.
The original Bill of Rights contained 10 amendments. Subsequent amendments have been added over time whenever the country saw that crucial rights were not being protected.
The Original Bill of Rights
The First Amendment: The First Amendment guarantees free speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to free exercise of religion and the right to petition the government. This amendment guarantees these rights by stating that the government will not interfere with citizens exercising them. Although these are popularly called rights, they are technically civil liberties by definition.
The Second Amendment: The Second Amendment asserts citizens’ rights to maintain a well-regulated militia. To do this, American citizens have the right to bear arms.
The Third Amendment: The Third Amendment prevents the government from “quartering” soldiers in private homes, meaning private residences can’t be commandeered by the government to house soldiers.
The Fourth Amendment: The Fourth Amendment prohibits unlawful search and seizure without probable cause. This means that government officials can’t come search your house without a warrant from a judge.
The Fifth Amendment: You may have heard someone say, “I plead the Fifth.” If you have, he was invoking the Fifth Amendment and his right against self-incrimination. Self-incrimination is being forced to say something that a court can use to prove you’re guilty of a crime. The Fifth Amendment also protects citizens against double jeopardy, which is when someone is tried for the same instance of a crime twice. In other words, if you are acquitted of a crime, the government doesn’t get a do-over of the trial to prove you’re guilty. Additionally, the Fifth Amendment guarantees due process of law and grand jury screening.
The Sixth Amendment: The Sixth Amendment promises all citizens will have a speedy, public trial in front of an impartial jury. It also says that those accused of wrongdoing must be informed of their criminal charges. People accused of crimes have the right to confront witnesses who they can compel to appear in court, and the accused also have the right to the assistance of a lawyer provided by the state.
The Seventh Amendment: Jury trials are required for federal civil cases involving claims of more than $20, according to this amendment. It also states that judges can’t overrule jury findings.
The Eighth Amendment: The Eighth Amendment states that excessive bail or fines imposed for a crime are unconstitutional. This is also the amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment: The Ninth Amendment is one of the most critical amendments. Why? It says that citizens and residents have more rights than the Constitution has expressed. This amendment makes it possible for additional laws and amendments to be enacted in order to further explain and protect American civil rights and civil liberties.
The 10th Amendment: The 10th Amendment reiterates the importance of separation of powers and asserts states’ rights to govern within their domains.
Amendments Added Later
The U.S. has continued to add amendments to the Constitution since its inception. There are now 27 amendments in all, with the most recent amendment ratified in 1992.
The 11th Amendment: The 11th Amendment says that people cannot sue an individual state unless they live there.
The 12th Amendment: The 12th Amendment changed presidential election procedures so that the president and vice president run together on a single ticket.
The 13th Amendment: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.
The 14th Amendment: The 14th Amendment defines U.S. citizenship. It also contains the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, both of which are seminal legislation regarding civil rights.
The 15th Amendment: The 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote regardless of race. However, women were still excluded from the right to vote at that time.
The 16th Amendment: The 16th Amendment allows Congress to levy an income tax without basing it on census numbers.
The 17th Amendment: The 17th Amendment states that U.S. senators will be elected by popular vote within their representative states.
The 18th Amendment: The 18th Amendment prohibited making or selling alcohol in the U.S., but it didn’t last long.
The 19th Amendment: The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920.
The 20th Amendment: The 20th Amendment changed the date of the beginning of each presidential and congressional term.
The 21st Amendment: The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, legalizing the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the U.S. 13 years after it had been banned.
The 22nd Amendment: The 22nd Amendment limited the number of allowable presidential terms to two.
The 23rd Amendment: The 23rd Amendment granted representation in the Electoral College to the District of Columbia.
The 24th Amendment: The 24th Amendment outlawed the poll tax.
The 25th Amendment: The 25th Amendment set forth procedures to fill a vacancy in the presidency should the president not be able to fulfill his duties for reason of death or disability.
The 26th Amendment: The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
The 27th Amendment: The 27th Amendment says that Congress cannot enact laws that change their own salaries. Any such laws will take effect in the subsequent term.