“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but his conception of equality was vastly different from our own. Still, the Founding Fathers fought to create a free and equal society, in which Americans were free from religious persecution and other restrictions on their individual liberties. The civil rights movement, which began in earnest in the 1950s, was born when African Americans demanded that they be given equal protection under the law. Their demonstrations set the stage for other groups to begin agitating for new laws as well.

Today, we take such freedoms as the right to privacy and freedom of speech for granted. But our civil liberties and rights are the result of many years of agitation and activism. Plus, our conceptions of civil rights and liberties have evolved since Jefferson’s day. Recent events such as the debate over gay marriage and the war on terror ensure that our conceptions of liberty and equal rights will continue to evolve in the years to come.

The Bill of Rights

Civil liberties protect us from government power. They are rooted in the Bill of Rights, which limits the powers of the federal government. The government cannot take away the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, and any action that encroaches on these liberties is illegal.



Right(s) Granted

1stFreedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion
2nd, 3rd, 4thRight to bear arms, protection from having troops inside one’s home, protection from unreasonable search and seizure
5th, 6th, 7th, 8thDue process, right to trial by jury, protection from cruel and unusual punishment
9th, 10thThose rights not enumerated by the Bill of Rights

The States

The Bill of Rights applies mostly to the federal government, so citizens were not protected from the states’ encroaching on their civil liberties. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, protects citizens against state infringements of the rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. In the early part of the twentieth century, courts began the practice of incorporation, enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment by forcing state governments to abide by the Bill of Rights. To do so, courts urged selective incorporation by asking the states to incorporate select parts of the Bill of Rights rather than all ten amendments. By 1969, however, the entire Bill of Rights had been incorporated by the Supreme Court.

Popular pages: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights