On July 4, 1776, thirteen British American colonies declared themselves independent from the British Empire. The most famous statement in the Declaration of Independence is that which asserted certain basic rights for every man:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Just how does the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s highest law, enable each of us to enjoy those rights?
The original Constitution—completed September 17, 1787—didn’t directly address individual rights. Its purpose was to establish a strong government in the wake of the failed Articles of Confederation, which was our country’s first governmental plan. The Constitution consists of seven articles that address legislative power, executive power, judicial power, states’ power, amendments, federal power and ratification.
Here are five parts of the Constitution that support and protect our individual rights and freedoms:
The Bill of Rights – The Bill of Rights was introduced by James Madison (the fourth president) in 1789 and became the first 10 Constitutional Amendments in 1791. The Bill of Rights defines the following rights:
- Freedom of speech, press, religion and petition.
- Right to keep and bear arms.
- Protection from quartering of soldiers.
- Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
- Right to due process of the law.
- Right to trial by jury, speedy trial, public trial, counsel.
- Right to civil trial by jury.
- Prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.
- Protection of rights not enumerated in the Constitution.
- Protection of the powers of the states and the people.
Amendment 14: Citizenship rights – This amendment, ratified in 1868, gives the right to citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. It also gives citizens the right to equal protection of the national and state laws, the right to be free of any law that deprives a person of life, liberty or property without due process.
Amendment 15: Voting rights – This amendment, ratified in 1870, gave people the right to vote, regardless of race or color.
Amendment 19: Women’s voting rights – This amendment, ratified in 1920, gave all citizens the right to vote, regardless of sex.
Amendment 26: Voting age – This amendment, ratified in 1971, gave all citizens age 18 or older the right to vote.
Even 225 years later, our Constitution and its Amendments continue to protect our rights and freedoms as American citizens. Thanks to the foresight of our Founding Fathers, we have the great fortune of living in a country that upholds our civil liberties through democracy.