individual rights in the constitution (2023)

Imagine having a strictly guarded personal power that is essential to your way of life. So much so that if he was in danger you would fight for him. And if that was taken away from him, he would consider uprooting his life and living elsewhere.Having a "right" to something means you can claim it. An individual right is something that every human individual on earth possesses.

Definition of individual rights

Individual rights are often thought of in the context of government. Individual rights, like civil rights, are something that each country or government decides whether or not citizens should have. Other rights, such as natural rights, are different because they are intrinsic to every person, whether the government recognizes them or not. They certainly can overlap, and we'll look at some examples of natural rights that are also individual rights protected by the US Constitution!

For example, a country might give its citizens the right to practice any religion they want without persecution. The right to practice religion would be protected by law, so if someone hurts or discriminates against you because they don't like your religion, the government would step in to punish you for violating your right.

Individual Rights: Constitutional Function

Individual rights help protect citizens from abuse, exploitation and coercion. Before the doctrine of individual rights was popularized in the Enlightenment, people did not have rights in the way we think of them today. Throughout Europe, the main system of government was amonarchy, where people's lives and their rights were in the hands of the king or queen. Often, rulers did not always have the best interest of their subjects in mind.

An important historical example is the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. During this period, the barons who swore loyalty to King D. João I were fed up with him because he collected taxes to pay for their failed wars and unjustly imprisoned them. They forced him to sign the Magna Carta under threat of civil war, which gave them some rights and protections against illegal arrest.

Individual rights marked a major shift towards more representative government that lacked absolute power. The "No Tax No Representation" protests in the United States arose when King George III of England excessively taxed the colonies without granting them any rights in government. Due to this experience, the colonies wanted to create a new country where their rights were protected.

individual rights in the constitution (1)A painting depicting the Boston Tea Party, where colonists protested excessive tea taxes by dumping the tea in the harbor. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Individual Rights in the Constitution: Examples

Although the doctrine of individual rights was extremely important to the foundation of American democracy, the first version of the Constitution made no mention of individual rights. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates debated whether or not the Constitution should specify rights.

Anti-federalists wanted to keep power in the states rather than transferring it to a central federal government. They feared that excluding individual rights would ease the federal government's pressure on them, while including them in the constitution would help make citizens more aware of their rights.

On the other hand, the Federalists wanted to create a strong central government that would unite the country. They felt that the inclusion of specific rights in the constitution would actually limit rights. If the constitution specifically protected certain rights, they feared that this meant that other rights were not protected. Instead of including rights A B and C at the risk of excluding rights D E and F, they preferred to leave them entirely out of the Constitution.

Individual Rights in the Bill of Rights

After the delegates finished drafting the Constitution in 1787, it became clearer that rights needed to be added. Some states said they would only ratify the Constitution if a Bill of Rights was added as an amendment. Thus, in 1789, the Bill of Rights was created. It constitutes the first ten reforms of the Constitution.

individual rights in the constitution (2)A plaque commemorating the Bill of Rights. Source: Wikimedia Commons

rights of conscience

The rights of conscience have to do with a person's personal beliefs and practices. Basically, people should be able to act according to their own conscience. Your inner thoughts and beliefs must be protected, and no person or government should be able to force people to believe or think in a certain way. Rights in this category include the First Amendment, which protects:

  • freedom of religion

  • Freedom of expression

  • press freedom

  • The right to protest.

individual rights in the constitution (3)A monument in Berkeley, California commemorating an activist who was arrested for distributing civil rights pamphlets. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Rights of the accused

The rights of the accused protect the people the law wants to punish. These rights help prevent the government from simply arresting people they don't like or taking away their voice by throwing them in jail for no good reason.

Do you remember the example of D. João I and the barons? One of his main problems was that John put people in prison who didn't agree with him. Rulers under a monarchical system were known to imprison political opponents or execute them for speaking out. It was especially easy for the poor to be falsely accused of theft or other crimes.

Rights in this category include:

  • The Fourth Amendment, which includesBe free from transgressions and transgressions.

  • The Fifth Amendment, which protects the right todue process of law and protection from self-incrimination (also known as the "fifth plea"). It also protects people.deprivation of “life, liberty or property”.

  • The Sixth Amendment, which protects the right toa solicitor (an attorney or solicitor),a quick test,A jury,a public trial andbe informed of the nature and cause of the charges.

  • The Eighth Amendment, which protects the right toreasonable bail andfreedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

property rights

When it comes to rights, “property” does not simply mean owning a building or an acre of land.Some people also include the modern understanding of the "right to privacy" in this category, expanding the meaning of the Third Amendment to mean "the right to be left alone".

Ownership in this sense refers to all aspects of life that belong to the person, including their own body and the tools or skills they own and use to earn a living. Property can be tangible or intangible.

Some of the rights that protect property are found in:

  • The Third Amendment, which protects people from being forced to turn over their homes to soldiers.

  • The Fourth Amendment, which protects people from having their property illegally searched or seized by the government.

Some people also include the Second Amendment in this category, which protects the right of citizens to "bear arms" or to possess firearms and other weapons.

Individual rights in the Constitution: later reforms

The Bill of Rights formed an important foundation for rights in the United States. But as time went on, it became clear that more rights were needed and that the legislature needed to amend the Constitution a few more times. The Bill of Rights was important, but it did not fully protect all citizens, especially minorities.

The 14th and 15th Amendments, passed in 1868 and 1870, added more rights to citizenship and the right to vote. In particular, the 14th Amendment gave equal rights to African Americans. The 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote.

individual rights in the constitution (4)A 1920s anti-suffrage cartoon criticizing the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. Source: Wikimedia Commons

State Rights vs. Individual Rights

The Bill of Rights was specifically designed to protect federal government people who infringe on their rights. However, it did not prohibit state governments from infringing on citizens' rights, although some people interpreted the Bill of Rights' protections as extending to states as well. Inevitably, this led to conflicts in which the rights of individual citizens under the Bill of Rights were pitted against the rights of the state government.

Barron contra Baltimore (1833)

One of the first examples of this conflict was the historic Supreme Court case Barron v. Baltimore (1833). A man named John Barron owned a pier on Baltimore Bay, but a city project was diverting dirt and debris into the bay. As a result, ships could hardly dock there.

Barron decided to sue the City of Baltimore, claiming that they had illegally confiscated his property without compensating him. Specifically, he said they violated the Fifth Amendment by illegally seizing his property to make their project. The lower court awarded him a fraction of the compensation he had requested, but the Maryland Court of Appeals later overturned the decision, saying the city did not owe him money.

Barron took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the rights in the Bill of Rights did NOT apply to states. This ruling took away some power from state governments and led to the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which gave African American citizens equal rights.

Individual rights in the Constitution: key points

  • Individual rights are privileges intrinsic to each individual human being. When it comes to the government, we see them as rights that the government legally protects.
  • Individual rights were important to early American leaders because of their experience with the British violating their rights.
  • The Constitution originally did not include individual rights until the Bill of Rights was passed two years later.
  • Examples of individual rights in the Constitution include freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and protection from unlawful imprisonment.
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