The United States isn’t called “the land of the free” for nothing. Ratified in 1791, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution – collectively known as the Bill of Rights – make up the essential foundation of the rights enjoyed by all U.S. citizens, and those rights often share a common theme: freedom.
Of course, the Bill of Rights isn’t where freedoms in the United States end. Article III of the Constitution guarantees the writ of habeas corpus, or the right of a person under arrest to be brought before a court and the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases. And because the Constitution is a living document, the freedoms that American citizens possess have continued to evolve and expand in the centuries following the Bill of Rights’ creation.
The First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government.”
Perhaps the most-often cited of all the civil liberties in the Constitution, the First Amendment is well known for guaranteeing freedom of religion and freedom of speech. But in fact, it offers five key civil freedoms: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the latter two allowing the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” (such as in protest or civil disobedience, in more modern terms).
To expand, this amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official religion that favors one religion over another or interfering with religious practices. It grants citizens the right to express their values and criticize the government and gives the press the right to distribute uncensored information.
Speaking to this amendment’s importance as well as to the flexible interpretation of the Constitution, Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, pointed out at the FFI’s official site in 2018: “We need all five of these freedoms to have a democracy that ensures comprehensive protection of the American citizenry,” but, “as a country, we’ll probably always disagree about what the precise limits of the First Amendment should be.”
The Second Amendment
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
One of the more controversial amendments in its contemporary applicability, this amendment endows Americans with the freedom to form a militia and the right to privately own and bear weapons.
Writing for the National Constitution Center, professor Nelson Lund of George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law says: “Modern debates about the Second Amendment have focused on whether it protects the private right of individuals to keep and bear arms, or a right that can be exercised only through militia organizations like the National Guard. This question, however, was not even raised until long after the Bill of Rights was adopted.”
The Third Amendment
“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner.”
Though not nearly as relevant in modern times as it was when first written in the late 1700s, the Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ensures that the country’s citizens are not obligated to host soldiers in their homes. This applies during both wartime and in times of peace.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the law of the land granted British soldiers the right to take over the homes of U.S. citizens, making the Third Amendment an important remedy at the time of its creation.
The Fourth Amendment
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
The heart of the Fourth Amendment is its protection against unreasonable search and seizure. This means that law enforcement bodies are unable to search or seize – which means to take property by the legal process of force, particularly referring to evidence – the property of American citizens without a search warrant or without probable reason to believe in the presence of crime-related evidence.
More than that, this amendment states that any evidence obtained from such an unlawful search or seizure cannot be used in a court of law. The concept of illegally obtained evidence in court is often referred to as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The Fifth Amendment
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.”
The Fifth Amendment ranks among the longer and more detailed sections of the Bill of Rights, as it expounds upon the rights of citizens accused of crimes. Here’s how those key freedoms break down:
- Serious criminal charges must be heard by a grand jury.
- No U.S. citizen may be tried twice for the same offense, known legally as double jeopardy.
- Citizens are protected against self-incrimination (hence the common phrase, to “plead the Fifth”).
- No American citizen shall be imprisoned without a fair trial and due process of law.
Likewise, the Fifth Amendment extends to property rights, guaranteeing that no citizen is deprived of their property by the government without the aforementioned due process of law. When the government does take property for public use – the practice of eminent domain – citizens are entitled to fair compensation at the market value of the property in question.
The Sixth Amendment
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
Like the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment lends rights to citizens accused of crimes. Crucially, it ensures that the accused are informed of their criminal charges, that witnesses are free to face the accused, and that the accused is free to choose their own witnesses and legal representation.
In the broader view, all these rights and freedoms are rolled into the right to an efficient and public trial and the right to a trial by an impartial jury of fellow U.S. citizens.
The Seventh Amendment
“... the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States.”
At first glance, the Seventh Amendment may seem redundant to those familiar with the Sixth Amendment – once again, it deals with the right to a trial by jury.
However, the Seventh Amendment actually reveals some of the intricacies of this particular freedom by extending the right to a jury trial to federal civil cases. The key word here is civil, which extends the right to a trial by jury beyond just those accused of criminal charges and ensuring it for common law and civil court cases as well.
That said, juries in the U.S. actually decide less than 1 percent of civil cases. Per the Supreme Court, the right to a trial by jury is reserved for “serious” offenses (commonly those that carry sentences of more than six months in prison).
The Eighth Amendment
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The Eight Amendment of the Constitution gets right to the point. It further protects the basic freedoms of U.S. citizens accused of crime by prohibiting exorbitant bail fees or exaggerated legal fines. This aims to protect citizens against the practical denial of bail, which is created by fixing bail amounts at unreasonably high levels.
Beyond that, it also famously bars the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment upon American citizens. The term “cruel and unusual” is, like much of the dynamic Constitution, the subject of varied interpretation. Chiefly, it protects citizens against disproportionate punishment for capital sentences. Similarly, the Eighth Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to humane conditions while in confinement.
The Ninth Amendment
“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
While the language may be dated, the meaning of the Ninth Amendment is fairly straightforward, and it’s critical to the freedoms of U.S. citizens. It states that just because any particular right is not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, that does not mean that the American people do not have that right.
Basically, this is the Bill of Rights making it clear that the freedoms and civil liberties in the Constitution do not end with only what is specifically listed – Americans enjoy additional rights as well.
The Tenth Amendment
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
In terms of the freedoms American citizens have, the Tenth Amendment also casts something of a wide net. Ultimately, it grants freedoms not listed in the Constitution to the people of the United States and helps protect its people from governmental overreach.
According to the Tenth Amendment, if a power of the federal government is not listed in the Constitution, that power belongs to the states or to the people.
More Key Amendments
As of 2019, the United States Constitution features 25 functioning amendments. Reaching well beyond the Bill of Rights, many of these amendments continue to grant vital freedoms to the citizens of all 50 states, including:
- The Thirteenth Amendment (1865): Abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States
- The Fourteenth Amendment (1868): Protects the rights, privileges, immunities and civil liberties of citizens from being infringed upon by states; prohibits states from denying votes; defines citizenship and grants it to former slaves
- The Fifteenth Amendment (1870): Guarantees suffrage – the right to vote – to former male slaves
- The Seventeenth Amendment (1913): Ensures the selection of senators by popular vote
- The Nineteenth Amendment (1920): Grants women the right to vote
- The Twenty-Sixth Amendment (1971): Grants suffrage to U.S. citizens aged 18 years and older
On the subject of the freedoms of citizens of the United States, the wide reach of the Fourteenth Amendment is notable, especially for its protection of rights at the hands of the states. For instance, this amendment prohibits any U.S. state from denying any person, “life, liberty, or property without due process of law” and guarantees that every American citizen within each state’s jurisdiction enjoys “equal protection of its laws.”
“Equal” is a critical takeaway here; speaking to the freedoms of American citizens, the Constitution stands as the nation’s great equalizer.
- Bill of Rights Institute: Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791)
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights
- Freedom Forum Institute: Does It Really Matter That Americans Don't Know Exactly What the First Amendment Says?
- National Archives: The Bill of Rights: What Does It Say?
- Cornell University: Legal Information Institute: Unreasonable Search and Seizure
- PBS: Privacy and Property Rights
- National Constitution Center: Common Interpretation: The Second Amendment
- Cornell University: Legal Information Institute: Eighth Amendment
- Nolo: The Right to a Trial by Jury
- National Constitution Center: Common Interpretation: The Seventh Amendment