US Constitution: Civil Liberties in the Bill of Rights

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The US Constitution, through its Bill of Rights, guarantees some civil liberties. How are civil liberties distinct from civil rights? What are these civil liberties that a citizen of the United States enjoys? Read on to know how having civil liberties is a major component of what it means to be an American. 

Image of the first page of the US Constitution.
Bill of Rights is the collection of the first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution. (Image: Scott Rothstein/ Shutterstock)

Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Civil liberties and civil rights are core features of American political institutions.

A civil liberty is a specific individual right under the US Constitution that is protected from government infringement. One can think of it as a freedom from government power. A civil right, on the other hand, is the right of a group of people to be treated equally by the government. One can think of this as protection by government.

In fact, most of the rights mentioned in the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are phrased in a negative way, to show that the freedom is guaranteed by preventing government from having the authority to restrict some behavior.

There are number of important liberties which government cannot limit. There’s a clause about religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. These five liberties are seen as essential components of a free society.

Learn more about the creation of the Constitution.

Bill of Rights

American civil liberty protections are found in the Bill of Rights. It’s the collection of the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution.

During the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the framers disagreed about whether or not civil liberties should be included in the text of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was ultimately adopted as a part of a compromise struck between two competitive political coalitions known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Compromise

Statue of George Mason.
George Mason favored explicit protections for civil liberties. (Image: Larry Prock/Shutterstock)

The compromise came about because George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, advocated for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the body of the Constitution. But not all the framers were of one mind on this topic. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, strongly disagreed with Mason.

Hamilton and others argued that the purpose of the Constitution was to outline the powers of the government. They were concerned that explicit statements about limiting government’s powers in the very document which provides those powers would undercut the authority of the government before it even got off the ground.

In the spirit of compromise, Mason and others who favored explicit protections for civil liberties agreed to ratify the Constitution in exchange for a guarantee that the Bill of Rights would be adopted as amendments to the Constitution immediately upon its ratification.

The Constitution was ratified in 1788, and when the first Congress met the following year, its primary order of business was to write and debate civil liberty protections in the form of amendments to the freshly adopted Constitution.

Finally, on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was adopted as part of the US Constitution.

The 10 Amendments

The House of Representatives had adopted 17 amendments as a part of the Bill of Rights, and the Senate had agreed to 12 of them. But only 10 of these Amendments were ratified by the necessary number of states.

The First Amendment includes the inability of government to restrict freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Second Amendment prohibits the government from infringing upon the right to keep and bear arms. The Third Amendment guarantees that the government will not require people to provide housing for US soldiers in their own homes without first making a law to do so.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and the means for obtaining a warrant when a search is needed. The Fifth Amendment concerns protections from being tried twice for the same crime, from testifying against oneself, and includes the right to due process of law. The Sixth Amendment includes the right to a speedy trial and legal counsel.

The Seventh Amendment includes the right to a jury trial. The Eighth Amendment includes protection from excessive bail and fines, as well as from cruel and unusual punishment. The Ninth Amendment says the Constitution cannot be used to deny people rights, rather it guarantees them. And the Tenth Amendment more or less says that rights not guaranteed in the Constitution are within the power of states.

Learn more about civil rights and fairness under government.

Amendments and Rights of Prisoners

It is interesting to note that Amendments four, five, six, and eight all have to do with prisoners.

During the time that the colonies were ruled by England and throughout the Revolutionary period, the colonists came to see wrongful adjudication of crimes and criminal injustice as part of their chief complaints about living under the crown.

One of the characteristics of a more advanced or civilized society is that it includes a justice system where the accused have guaranteed rights. These values are strongly reflected in the American Bill of Rights.

Due Process Clause

A torn paper with 5th Amendment written on it, with a gavel by its side, is seen placed on top of a copy of the US constitution.
The due process clauses in the Fifth and 14th Amendments work together to protect civil liberties at the state level. (Image: zimmytws/Shutterstock)

The Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment states, in part, that no one can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This Due Process Clause has been interpreted by the American judiciary to mean that all of the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights constitute rights that the federal government cannot take away from individuals. However, it doesn’t say anything about whether or not state governments could restrict civil liberties.

It wasn’t until the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 that the Constitution included a mechanism that could guarantee civil liberties at the state level as well as the federal level. The Due Process Clauses in the Fifth and 14th Amendments have worked together to be interpreted by the judiciary to protect civil liberties at the state level.

Learn more about federalism.

Selective Incorporation

Civil liberty protections at the state level have been guaranteed through a process known as selective incorporation.

Selective incorporation refers to the process of individual civil liberties being guaranteed at the state level one at a time through a series of Supreme Court decisions. The court system is designed to interpret laws and the Constitution to help build a body of legal rulings. Over time, these rulings have become a part of American law and its system of justice. By issuing rulings in cases, the courts can expand upon or constrain existing laws.

Common Questions about Civil Liberties in the Bill of Rights

Q: What is a civil liberty?

A civil liberty is a specific individual right that is protected from government infringement under the US Constitution.

Q: When was the Bill of Rights adopted as part of the US Constitution?

The Bill of Rights was adopted as part of the US Constitution on December 15, 1791.

Q: What does the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment state?

The Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment states, in part, that no one can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

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