Our Constitution guarantees our rights and freedoms by limiting the power of our government.
The Constitution is not just some forgotten history lesson that we may not have paid much attention to—it’s the foundation of our rights and freedoms. And it is actually a topic of discussion today!
Why is the Constitution in the news right now? There are four Constitutional Amendments that are relevant:
- The 1st Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion (1789)
- The 14th Amendment granting citizenship to all who are born in the United States (1868)
- The 15th Amendment specifying that blacks had the right to vote (1870)
- The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote (1920)
Here is how these amendments apply to current events:
there is the tragic shooting in the Pittsburg Synagogue—eleven people gunned down while attending religious services. In addition to the crime of murder, the gunman may be guilty of a hate crime because his victims were practicing their religious faith at the time. The 1st Amendment protects freedom of religion, and 45 states (including Pennsylvania) have Civil Rights laws adding extra penalties for hate crimes. And this man appears to have been motivated by anti-Semitism.
there is the issue of whether the children of illegal immigrants are (or should be) citizens of the United States simply because they are born here. The 14th Amendment is cited as granting citizenship as a birthright. The first provision of the Amendment states:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Trump believes that birthright citizenship does not/should not apply to illegal immigrant children born in America. He has declared his intention to take away birthright citizenship for the American-born children of illegal immigrants specifically, through an executive order. Most legal scholars believe it is impossible for him to do this, and members of both political parties have agreed.
However, because illegal immigration is a hot-button issue, there is a debate about whether the 14th Amendment does or does not apply to illegal immigrants, and what powers the president has vs. the Constitution. So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed this question.
there are the elections on November 6th—and it’s time to vote!! I heard an inspiring speech by Oprah Winfrey about the privilege, responsibility, and power of voting. She spoke at a rally for Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia. If elected, Abrams would be the first black woman governor in America.
Oprah began by confessing that like a lot young people, she did not really take voting seriously until she was in her mid-twenties. That’s when she heard Otis Moss, Jr. tell about his father’s attempt to vote in a 1962 Georgia election. He had walked 18 miles only to be turned away at three different polling places. (This was before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed to enforce 15th Amendment voting rights and prohibit racial discrimination at the polls.)
Just to summarize:
- The 13th Amendment had freed the slaves (1865),
- the 14th gave all males 21 and older (including Blacks) the right to vote (1868),
- and the 15th specified voting rights for Blacks (1870):
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Oprah exhorted Blacks to get out and vote, in honor of all their ancestors who had been denied this precious right until 1965. Then she focused on women, who could not even own property by themselves 100 years ago, much less be able to vote, and she stressed how far women have come. They acquired their voting rights all over the United States when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920—less than 100 years ago, Oprah noted. She then exhorted all women to vote, all her “Sisters” of different colors. She challenged women to be “discerning” and urged them to vote their values.
No matter what your political beliefs are or where you stand on all the contentious issues—be sure to vote. Does a single vote matter? Absolutely! Look at how close many of these races are. Your vote could be decisive.
On a lighter note, read my blog “Suffering from Women’s Suffrage.” It recounts the humorous efforts of a man attempting to influence the voting of his wife and four daughters back in 1914.
Also, listen to our podcast “How to get the vote out,” an interview with Don Friedman, a political consultant located in Pittsburg, PA.
Finally, read Chapter 5 of American Handbook—it explains how our rights and freedoms are protected by our Constitution.
American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know
By Maryanne K. Datesman
November 2, 2018 DRAFT
Chapter 5: Our Rights and Freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
Why is the right to live in freedom so deeply ingrained in the American psyche?
From the beginning, settlers came here for freedom.
Some were escaping religious persecution; some felt oppressed by European governments; some felt trapped in a lower level of the social hierarchy of their country. They wanted a fresh start. They were risk takers, ready to leave all the security of their native country for a chance of a better life in a “New World.” And they were determined to protect their individual freedoms.
Today, we hear stories of refugees longing to leave dangerous conditions in their countries to find freedom in the United States. On our southern border, mothers risk their lives to bring children long distances to save them from certain death in their central American hometowns. But what is our responsibility to these families? It is a moral dilemma. We are a nation of immigrants and many of our own ancestors came for freedom. How do we remain true to our ideals without becoming overwhelmed by sheer numbers?
What is your family story? What would have happened if your ancestors had not risked it all to come to America? What would have happened to them if they had been denied admission to this country?
How did this strong desire for freedom become a right guaranteed by our national government?
Time for a quick history refresher.
The 1500s and 1600s:
- Settlers came to America from different countries and set up colonies during the 1500s (Spain and France) and the 1600s (primarily Britain). A number of the British colonies were founded to protect specific religious groups from persecution.
- In 1607, the British Empire founded its first permanent colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were all founded during the 1600s. Georgia was the last of the original 13 British colonies, founded in 1732.
- By 1770, the colonists were chaffing under British rule, complaining that they did not have the same rights as other British citizens. The cry was that they were subject to “taxation without representation.” That year, a demonstration in Boston turned violent and British troops fired into the crowd. It became known as the “Boston Massacre.”
- In 1773, there was the “Boston Tea Party,” when rebellious colonists dumped tea from British ships into the harbor.
- In 1774, the fighting started in earnest with the Battle of Bunker Hill between the newly formed Continental Army and the British troops.
- In 1776, the colonists decided to band together and officially declare their independence from England. They were very specific about the rights they wanted to have.
What was the significance of the Declaration of Independence?
The colonists wanted to define the role of government and protect their individual rights. They specified three rights in the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
They asserted these are God-given rights and they cannot be taken away by the government:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
(From the start, however, these God-given rights did not apply to women, Native American Indians, or African-American slaves. We will talk more about this paradox later.)
The British weren’t about to let their profitable colonies go, so the colonists had to fight a Revolutionary War. The troops, led by George Washington, fought for six years, greatly aided by French soldiers and France’s financial support.
In 1781, the British began to withdraw, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ended the war.
The 13 colonies came together with a weak form of government, under the Articles of Confederation. There was only one government branch—Congress—and it had very little power. The 13 states each had their own individual Constitutions describing their state governments, and specifying the rights held by their citizens.
They were a heterogeneous lot that operated like a series of small, independent countries.
Finally, in 1787 a group of “Founding Fathers” came together in Philadelphia and wrote a new Constitution. The trick was to create a form of government that was strong enough to hold the country together while preventing the national government from taking too much power away from the states, or from individuals.
What was so unique about the Constitution?
The writers of the Constitution were certainly influenced by previous documents such as the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, and the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Montesquieu. However, James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, saw one important difference between those documents and what was created for the United States:
“In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example . . . of charters of power granted by liberty.”
For the first time, liberty was not to be granted by the authority of the government. Instead, the principles of liberty would determine how much power the government would be allowed. The Constitution would protect the people from their government and it would specifically limit its power over their lives.
The Preamble to the Constitution has the first three words written in very large letters to emphasize the power of the people:
WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Constitution established three branches of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial, with a system of checks and balances to divide the power and prevent one branch from dominating the other. It was also based on the principles of individual rights, liberty, limited government, natural rights theory, a republican form of government, and popular sovereignty (i.e., the consent of the governed).
During the Constitutional Convention, the need to enumerate individual rights was hotly debated. Although state constitutions had individual rights specified, when the Federal Constitution was completed on September 17, 1787, it lacked any sort of bill of rights.
The new Constitution then had to be ratified by 9 of the 13 states. (Three-quarters of all states must ratify any change to the Constitution.) By 1788, the requisite 9 states had voted for ratification, but Virginia, New York, Rhode Island, and North Carolina had not, holding out for a Bill of Rights. James Madison promised the Virginia legislators that the Constitution would be amended upon its ratification, and they acquiesced, as did New York.
The following year, in 1789, the first 10 Amendments—the Bill of Rights— were added and ratified. North Carolina voted to accept the Constitution, and then Rhode Island was the last of the 13 states to ratify it in 1790. The new country now had a new Constitution, with a Bill of Rights.
What are the individual rights specified in the Bill of Rights?
Freedom of religion, speech, and the press; the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government about grievances:
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 for a redress of grievances.
This First Amendment is often cited as one of our most important—it protects our freedoms from the power of the government. It guarantees our right to practice our religion as we wish and to criticize the government as individuals or in the press. It also means that the government cannot stop us from having peaceful demonstrations or advocating for changing unfair laws.
The right to bear arms:
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.
Ah, the famous Second Amendment. Does it guarantee our right to own and use guns of any type? Or is it limited to our participating in a government militia?
Quartering of soldiers (limitations on soldiers being housed in private homes):
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The Third Amendment was important to the original colonists because the British had forced private citizens to house soldiers. It specifies that the American government can only do this is a time of war and after passing laws to regulate the practice.
The right to be free from unreasonable search or arrest:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from searching individuals, their homes, papers, and personal items without a warrant indicating probable cause of some wrongdoing. The definition of what constitutes an “unreasonable” search or seizure has been subject to some interpretation.
Individual rights in criminal cases:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The Fifth Amendment is certainly one of the most famous. Taking the Fifth—”I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me”—is a line we hear often on TV. The government cannot compel us to testify against ourselves in court or in front of bodies such as Congress and the FBI.
This Amendment also requires the government to obtain an indictment by a Grand Jury before charging an individual with a crime. The accused is considered innocent until proven guilty, and if found innocent may not be tried again—that is, put in “double jeopardy.” And the government may not seize private property for public use without paying a fair price for it.
The right to a fair trial in criminal cases:
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; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
The Sixth Amendment spells out our rights if we are accused of a crime: to have a speedy, public trial by jury; to be tried in the vicinity of where the crime was committed; to be told what crime is alleged; to be able to confront the witnesses for the prosecution; to have a way to compel defense witnesses to testify; and to have a defense attorney.
Rights in civil cases:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, then according to the rules of the common law.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in certain civil cases. However, most civil cases are now prosecuted at the state level and are settled by a judge.
Bails, fines, and punishments:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The Eighth Amendment protects us against excessive bails and fines, as well as cruel and unusual punishment.
Rights retained by the people:
The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The Ninth Amendment asserts that just because certain rights are specifically listed in the Constitution, it does not mean that other rights not enumerated don’t exist.
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.
Finally, the Tenth Amendment says that any power not specifically given to the Federal government by the Constitution shall be reserved to the states (unless prohibited by the Constitution) or to the people of the United States.
What is the importance of these rights and freedoms?
In 1775, Patrick Henry famously declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
From the Declaration of Independence, declaring liberty as a God-given right, to the Constitution avowing its purpose to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” it is clear that individual freedom is the foundation—the bedrock— of our nation.
This is who we are.
As Americans, our love of freedom is so profound and it is such a deep-seated value that we sometimes take it for granted. It forms our subjective view of reality and the basis for the assumptions we make about how life should be. Of course, this is a free country. Of course, we are free to practice our religion according to our beliefs, or not have any religious beliefs at all. Of course, we are free to speak our minds and participate in demonstrations. And of course, we know the importance of a free press.
But do you know what? We have to be mindful of our freedoms. We have to respect them and value them. We have to explain their importance to our grandchildren—to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. It is part of our civic responsibility.
This is who we are.
The new book is tentatively titled, “American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know,” written from my perspective as a grandmother.
This is an awesome task, even though we will be drawing on the six cultural values presented on our website and developed in American Ways.
Here are working titles for the first twelve chapters:
- Chapter 1: Desperate times call for desperate measures!
- Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
- Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
- Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
- Chapter 5: Our rights and freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
- Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
- Chapter 7: Self-Reliance: Use it or lose it
- Chapter 8: Competition: Sports and the entrepreneurial spirit
- Chapter 9: Hard Work: What do you do?
- Chapter 10: The American Dream: Dead or alive?
- Chapter 11: Patriotism is not a dirty word
- Chapter 12: Civil Discourse: Talking across the political divide
The final draft version will be out on or before March 1, 2019. It will be available as an eBook, and possibly in a print version in the future.
We’d like to invite you along on this journey—let’s begin a dialogue.
We want your opinions, your stories, and your wisdom. During pre-sale, which ends March 1, 2019, you can sign up for $5.00 to get behind-the-scenes updates on this project, and then receive the final draft version by March 1, 2019.