Article I - Religion and Free Speech.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
In the 1700s, most colonial governments followed the Old World or European tradition of establishing an official church that the people were expected to support and attend. In Virginia, for instance, it was the Anglican Church or Church of England. The legislature of the colony passed laws to punish parents who did not have their children baptized into that church. A law passed in 1705 sought to punish those who did not attend church services. It read:
“Be it enacted ... that if any person, being of the age of twenty-one years, or upwards, shall willfully absent him or herself from divine service at his or her parish church, the space of one month ... shall forfeit and pay fifty pounds of tobacco... If any person offending shall refuse to make payment... by order of Justice, shall receive on his or her bare back ten lashes, well laid on.”
In 1748, Virginia's General Assembly even passed a law setting the salary of ministers! Then, in 1786, "an act for establishing religious freedom" repealed the dogmatic decrees. And five years later the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to prohibit Congress from establishing a national religion.
The First Amendment also prohibits Congress from passing laws abridging, "freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
To be truly free, persons must have the right to criticize their government and attempt to influence its actions without fear of being executed, fined, or placed in prisons or concentration camps.
The Second Amendment states that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Yet, Congress has approved laws that bar Americans from owning certain types of firearms, require waiting periods to purchase guns, and otherwise circumvent the clear wording and intent of the Second Amendment. Criminals, by definition, do not obey laws, and gun control laws cannot keep firearms out of the hands of those determined to obtain them.
The Second Amendment states that a "well-regulated Militia" is "necessary to the security of a free State," which is one reason with the "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" was not to be infringed.
In contrast, a national army is led by professional soldiers under the command of a country's ruler or chief executive. It entails government power that can be used by a ruthless executive to coerce his subjects to either obey his edicts or die. It had frequently happened in Europe, and Patrick Henry and other anti-Federalists feared it could happen in the United States.
Nevertheless, professional national armies are necessary, since foreign enemies can easily conquer nations without them. The dilemma facing the Founders were how to check-and-balance government in a way that would allow an adequate national defense, but precluding the possibility that a standing Army could be turned against the American people themselves. They concluded that the best solution was to allow ordinary citizens to keep and bear arms. If threatened by domestic criminals (even within their own government) or foreign aggressors, an armed citizenry could quickly and effectively rise in defense of the nation.
The Third Amendment deals with another aspect of the same subject: forcing citizens to house and feed federal soldiers. It was not to be allowed "in time of peace," and not even in wartime unless authorized by our elected representatives. This, too, was a protection against dictatorial, strong-arm actions by government. It was also recognition of private property rights. "A man's home is his castle" is one way the principle has been stated. The federal government was not to decree that a homeowner must feed and lodge, except under terms specified in the Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment, forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures, is a further extension of the same right. It protects law-abiding citizens, but what about criminals?
The right to control property can be denied to suspected criminals, but only if the denial is based on well-established written and legal (including constitutional) rules. The police must have a warrant from a magistrate or judge based on specific reasons for a search.
The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments also deal with lawbreakers and those suspected of criminal acts. There is a further balance between protection of the innocent, apprehension of suspects, and punishment of persons convicted of crimes.
In the United States, the Sixth Amendment would provide all of those protections. Indeed, you would have the right to a trial by jury for even a common law suit, if the amount in controversy exceeded twenty dollars. That is guaranteed in the Seventh Amendment. But in a communist country you could be kept in jail indefinitely, or even executed, without knowing the nature of the accusations against you, having a public trial, or having your guilt or innocence determined by a jury of your peers in open court.
The U.S. Constitution even provides a way for those suspected of even serious crimes to be released from jail pending trial. They must deposit a sum of money called "bail," but the Eighth Amendment states that it must not be excessive. Only for the most heinous crimes (such as murder) is bail sometimes denied entirely.
The Eighth Amendment also precludes the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." Public whippings were considered cruel punishments in colonial times. Torture devices and four foot square prison cells or cages (such as those in which many U.S. prisoners of war were kept in Vietnam) would be considered so today.
The Framers did not consider capital punishment (the death penalty) to be either "cruel" or "unusual." Judges and juries have sentenced some criminals to death, for such crimes as murder and treason, throughout our history. In 1972, the Supreme Court temporarily declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional, but reinstated it in 1976.
There is a phrase at the conclusion of the Fifth Amendment that is unrelated to criminal trials, but is a crucial protection of property rights. It reads: “..... nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
Sometimes, private property is used for public use. Three of the most common examples are road and highway construction, historic site preservation, and the construction of government buildings. Even in these instances, however, the federal government is not allowed to seize private land unless the owners are paid a fair price.
The last two Amendments are among the most important. They feared that federal power would expand to a dictatorship.
They wrote the Tenth Amendment to make crystal clear that the federal government has only those powers specifically granted to it by the Constitution. The states and/or the people retain those not so granted:
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.
While this Constitutional "stop sign" was intended to limit federal power, needed to limit the power of the federal government, a "go sign" was also needed for the rights of the people. Those specifically protected by the Bill of Rights are among the most important that a free people can have, but not the only ones. To list them all would be equivalent to cataloguing every grain of sand in a bucket. The Ninth Amendment was drafted to make it clear that the rights of the people were not limited merely to those mentioned in the Bill of Rights. It reads:
“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The first ten amendments to the Constitution protect our God-given rights to worship as we choose, speak as we wish, peaceably assemble, petition government for a redress of grievances, keep and bear arms for self- and national-defense, be secure in our homes, and be treated fairly in courts of law. They place limits on federal power without eroding individual rights. As a framework of Government for a free people, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights have no equal in world history. Any imperfections are minor. The principles are solid and enduring.
Adapted from the Family Heritage Series, a project of The John Birch Society's Movement to Restore Decency.
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