In 1791, the Bill of Rights, consisting of 10 amendments, was ratified into the constitution. The document’s purpose was to spell out the liberties of the people that the government could not infringe upon. Considered necessary by many at the time of its development, the Bill of Rights became the cause for a huge debate between two different factions: The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists were those who thought that there should be a new Union created with a strong centralized government and individual regional governments. They felt that it was not necessary for there to be a bill of rights because it was implied that those rights the Constitution did not specifically state would be handed down to the states. On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists were opposed to such a form of government on the grounds that the Constitution, in which it was outlined, lacked clarity in the protections of the individuals. The Anti-Federalistswhose memory of British oppression was still fresh in their mindswanted certain rights and guarantees that were to be apart of the constitution (Glasser 1991). A clear demonstration of the Anti-Federalist attitude was performed by Samuel Bryan, who published a series of essays named the Cenitnal Essays,’ which “assailed the sweeping power of the central government, the usurpation of state sovereignty, and the absence of a bill of rights guaranteeing individual liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion (Bran 1986).” Of course, the freedoms stated above are a portion and not the whole of The Bill of Rights. Ultimately, The Bill of Rights was adopted to appease the Anti-Federalists, whose support was necessary to ratify the constitution, and who believed that without the liberties granted therein, the new constitutionthat they thought was vague and granted too much power to the central governmentwould give way to an elite tyrannical government.
The purpose of The Bill of Rights is to protect U.S. citizens from abuse of power that may be committed by the different areas of their government. It does this by expressing clear restrictions on the three braches of government laid out previously in the Constitution. As stated by Hugo Black, Associate Justice to the Supreme Court: “The bill of rights protects people by clearly stating what government can’t do by describing the procedures that government must follow when bringing its powers to bear against any person with a view to depriving him of his life, liberty, or property (Black 1960).'” Each amendment either states what the government cannot do or limits its powers by providing certain procedures that it must abide by. To provide a few examples, one must take a closer look at some of these amendments. The First Amendment to the Constitution dictates that “Congress shall make no law,” which establishes a national religion, prohibits free speech or press, or which prevents the right to assemble or petition the government. In the language used, it expressly prohibits the legislative branch from making laws which would impose on the rights that were given to the people. According to Hugo Black, “The Framers were well aware that the individual rights they sought to protect might be easily nullified if subordinated to the general powers granted to Congress. One of the reasons for adoption of the Bill of Rights was to prevent just that (Black 1960).” The Third Amendment states that the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure “shall not be infringed.” Again, this amendment is laying down restrictions on what government has power to do. Amendment Six provides the right to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury,” to be “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,” and “to have compulsory process for obtaining Witnesses in his favor, and to have Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” This amendment states that if you are accused of a crime, you must have certain rights reserved which the courts are obliged to uphold. Furthermore, it outlines regulations that they must follow in order to protect those rights, such as obtaining witnesses and providing an impartial jury. The Eighth Amendment prevents the government from imposing excessive bail or fines and says “cruel or unusual punishments,” shall not be inflicted (Lowi & Ginsburg 2000:A15). In this case, we can see that it takes the power of the government to punish criminals but, at the same time, it adds restrictions to that power. All of the fore mentioned examples show that The Bill of Rights expresses civil libertiesliberties that are for the peopleand states that the government cannot take action that would go against or infringe upon on these rights.
Probably the most used and popular of the amendments is the First Amendment. In it is illustrated rights and protections: Protection from congress making laws in respect to the establishment religion and the freedom to exercise it as well as freedom of speech and press, and the freedom to peaceably assemble and petition the government for grievances. Let us start by analyzing each one on its own. First, the freedom of religion is a guarantee that the government will not establish and or endorse any national religion. It cannot treat any citizen or group in a biased manner based solely on religious preferences or beliefs. Second, freedom of speech is the right for the citizen to speak his or her mind on any subject and in any point of view whether it be or not be in public opinion without punishment as long as it does not harm anyone else. Also, the freedom of press allows for the people to print whatever ideas, thoughts or information they likealso as long as it does no harm to others. Cognate to the other freedoms, the right to peaceably assemble falls right into line with this theme of the right to express yourself as you see fit. It allows for the grouping of people to get together without being broken up by the authorities. You can draw a parallel to the freedom of speech in so as much it allows for the groups to speak about whatever they want even if it includes grievances they have about government. This leads in to the right to petition the government. If it is so desired, the people have the right to tell government to change the way it is run if they have problems with it. It is clear that all of these rights are closely entangled and that they feed off of each other. Thus we have the overall right to express ourselves freely in any form and about any topic with regards to the welfare of others around them.
This amendment is essential to the governance of the United States simply because it guarantees the basic rights that allow people to effectively control the government in which it empowered. Ultimately the government is a subject of the people; the people created it and the people run it. As James Madison said in the Federalist Paper 51 “A dependence on the people is, no doubt the primary control on the government (Lowi & Ginsburg 2000:A26).” Therefore, the rights granted in the First Amendment secure that the people are the primary control. As stated on Findlaw.com in the case of United States v. Cruikshan:
”The right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers or the duties of the National Government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and, as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States. The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.”
This statement by the court unequivocally claims that without First Amendment we wouldn’t be able to have a republican form of government.
In a hypothetical situation, if the First Amendment was not in our constitution, there would not be an effective democracy. For example, if the right to freedom of speech were denied, then it would be dangerous for political opponents to fight against elected officials. Maybe certain people wouldn’t be allowed to run for President because they were not of the correct religious background. The press would not be able to bring to the publics’ attention, what certain illegal activities government officials were involved in. People wouldn’t be able to gather together in order to protest what the government might be doing to the environment. We see examples of the practice of our freedoms everyday from reading the morning paper and hearing about your corrupt senator to when you get to school and hear your teacher speak his or her philosophical views, to getting home at night and logging on to your favorite activists web site that allows you to share your environmental opinions with friends all over the country. It is hard to imagine a society such as ours without the rights that we have in the First Amendment. Without such rights, governance of our country would not be possible.
Black, Hugo. 1960. “The Bill of Rights,” Reprinted from New York University Law Review, Vol. 35, April 1960 Online: http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/faculty/gertz/hugoblack.htm. Downloaded 6/12/01
Bruns, Roger A. 1986. “A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the United States Constitution,” Online: http://www.nara.gov/exhall/charters/constitution/conhist.html. Downloaded 6/12/2001.
Findlaw.com. “U.S. Constitution: First Amendment.” Online: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment01/01.html. Downloaded 6/12/2001
Ginsberg, Benjamin and Theodore J. Lowi. 2000. American Government: Freedom and Power. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Glasser, Ira. 1991. “The Bill of Rights: A BRIEF HISTORY,” adapted from The Birth of the Bill of Rights” in Visions of Liberty by Ira Glasser (Arcade Publishing, 1991) Online: http://www.aclu.org/library/pbp9.html. Downloaded 6/12/01.