The United States of America is a country proud of the freedoms offered to its people. The government readily cites this when comparing the US to other nations.
But, the process of guaranteeing constitutional rights has been one of compromise and gradual change. As a result, citizens enjoy many constitutional rights now due to the Bill of Rights and other Amendments.
What Are Constitutional Rights?
Constitutional rights are the rights of the United States’ people concerning the government’s actions and responsibilities.
There are certain actions that the federal government and law enforcement cannot take against the people of the United States because they would be deemed unconstitutional.
Typically, these relate to certain freedoms that citizens may uphold without fear of retribution from those in power.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights
At first, the United States Constitution merely laid out the roles and responsibilities of the federal government, providing a blueprint on how it should act and the system’s structure.
Federalists at the time believed this was more than enough as a framework. However, some Anti-Federalists at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention didn’t agree.
They wanted the constitution to guarantee more rights to make it clear that the people of the United States had specific freedoms. They felt it wasn’t enough for these to be implied only.
In 1789, a series of amendments went before the House of Representatives and the Senate to ensure that these fundamental rights of the people were in place.
The Senate approved 12 amendments proposed by James Madison for consideration by the states, and 10 were ratified in 1791.
This series of amendments became better known as the Bill of Rights and was housed in the United States Constitution to clarify those crucial constitutional rights.
The First Amendment and the Five Basic Rights
The First Amendment is perhaps the most important in guaranteeing constitutional rights for the people of the United States because it enumerates five basic freedoms. They are:
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of the press
- Freedom of assembly
- Freedom to petition the government.
Other examples of constitutional rights from the Bill of Rights are:
1) The right to bear arms (Second Amendment). While this remains one of the more controversial amendments, it is one held dear by many. It ensures citizens can own guns, as the Militia did to secure the free state. Notions to bring in gun control are often deemed unconstitutional.
2) The freedom against double jeopardy. While the Fifth Amendment is often cited as the right not to stand trial for the same crime twice, there is more to it. It also provides the right to a fair trial by a grand jury in federal cases. The Sixth Amendment expands on that with the right to a speedy trial.
3) The freedom from any cruel and unusual punishments. The government may not impose any punishment on citizens that is excessive or cruel. This means no excessive bail or fine requirements and protection against physical harm.
4) The clarification that citizens have other rights not laid out in the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was an essential document but only went so far without this Ninth Amendment to cover any gaps and loopholes.
The Amendment Process Also Allows for Additional Updates for Constitutional Rights
Representatives can put forward additional proposals for amendments to the constitution. These amendments typically fall into different categories.
First, you have those who wish to alter how the government operates. Or, you have those that want to cement certain rights so far unmentioned in the constitution, Bill of Rights, or other ratified amendments.
Amendments for the Freedoms of Minority Groups in the United States
Over the centuries, the government has recognized the rights of different groups and minorities as US Citizens. This process is ongoing, and there are proposals relating to the rights of those born in the United States to foreign-born parents.
The Fourteenth took this further with greater civil rights for those born and naturalized in the United States.
Amendments for the Freedom To Vote in the United States
However, it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Amendment that the constitution was adapted again to include women. The right to vote couldn’t be denied based on biological sex.
Later, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment ensured that the right to vote couldn’t be impeded by the failure to pay a poll tax or other tax.
Finally, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment changed the voting age from 21 to 18.
Constitutional Rights and the Law
It is important to remember that constitutional rights apply to situations involving those in a governmental position of power.
They may discriminate against people or do them harm in a way that undermines the rights laid out in the constitution and Bill of Rights.
They do not apply to situations where other public members carry out similar acts of discrimination.
For example, if a government body were to stop a religious group from practicing, that would violate that group’s constitutional rights.
Constitutional Rights in the United States
The Bill of Rights may have ensured some basic fundamental freedoms for the citizens of the United States, but the process didn’t end there.
Instead, those initial constitutional rights provided a solid foundation to improve the constitution as a document for the rights of the people and not just the responsibilities of the government.
Moreover, the ability to add further amendments means that these constitutional rights can evolve with time.