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Part 2: How well do you know the Constitution?  – The Bill of Rights  

Published in Blog on September 04, 2022 by Sheri Waldrop

I have a right to nothing which another has a right to take away...a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse or rest on interference. – Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, 1787

In the United States, people often discuss that we are a free country, with basic rights as a citizen. These rights are defined in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The bill of rights was ratified on December 15, 1791, and was designed to protect individual rights and limit the power of the federal government.  

The First Amendment prevents Congress from creating or supporting a “governmental church” (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This does not mean “separation of church and state” in a sense often discussed today; the founding fathers who wrote our Constitution believed in public prayer.

Benjamin Franklin stated on July 28, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “Sir, we have been told in the Sacred Writings, that unless the Lord builds the house, all labor is in vain...I beg leave to move that prayers asking for the help of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations be offered in this assembly each morning.” 

The original signers of the Constitution did not want the United States to become like England, where there was an established church, the Church of England, and did not want laws that mandated attendance, regardless of personal preference. Since a significant number of the original settlers in the colonies, especially in the north, had come to the new land to flee religious persecution, this amendment was written to prevent a re-enactment of this type of religious prohibition.

The first amendment also guarantees one of our most precious rights: the right to freedom of speech and the press, and the right to peaceably assemble. This allows for peaceful protests, and the right to speak and publish an opinion that differs from that of the government or its representatives without censorship (or the suppression of free thought and discourse, such as seen on several of our modern social media platforms). 

Thomas Jefferson spoke passionately about this right: “I am for...freedom of the press and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force, and not by reason, the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799). In other words, even if the government disagrees with the complaints that citizens make about its policies, it does not have the right to censor them or prevent bringing these complaints or criticisms into the public forum. 

One has to wonder how Jefferson would have felt about the recent “apologies” given by the hosts of an international podcasting convention for the mere presence of a well-known conservative podcaster, Ben Shapiro. Why should the media feel the need to apologize for the presence of several streams of discourse at a large convention?

Benjamin Franklin also addressed this fundamental right when he was only 16 years of age: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech” (1722, Dogwood Papers). These words are still true today and we would do well to examine our current media trends and discourse (or lack) in light of this warning.
The Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” has been in the forefront of the news recently, with a discussion of what firearms, if any, should be legal to own. This issue is complicated by recent shootings in schools and ongoing shootings in the streets of major cities. This amendment guarantees that this right to own firearms cannot be prevented.

Those who wish to overturn this amendment feel that “guns kill people”, citing the increase in school shootings and the overall increase in gun violence in the past few decades. Those who wish to uphold this amendment take the position that killings occur due to innate problems within the heart and that if guns are prohibited, this will only prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves against criminal activity. They cite recent examples in which an armed citizen could stop further shooting in a public mall, and other sites where attempts to shoot numerous others were halted by armed individuals.

This amendment also lets states create a state militia.

The Third Amendment states that private homeowners cannot be forced to quarter (provide food and board) for soldiers. Just prior to the Revolutionary War in America, private citizens were often forced to do just that, regardless of their personal politics.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures (without a just cause), and a citizen cannot be arrested without probable cause. This means that there can be no arrests without a warrant that defines the place to be searched and the person or things to be seized. Again, this amendment has been in the news recently, with the public debate over whether the FBI search of former President Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago was legal and reasonable, and whether the affidavits provide just cause for this action.

Without the protection provided by this amendment, citizens in the U.S. would basically be living in a police state. The writers of the Constitution wanted to prevent this from happening.

The Fifth Amendment ensures citizens of a due process of law, states that capital crimes must be tried by a jury; and that a person cannot be tried twice for a crime once judgment has been rendered (this is known as the “double jeopardy” law). Also, it protects a citizen from being forced into witnessing against themselves, which has led to the well-known phrase “I plead the fifth” seen in many detective and legal dramas.

The Sixth Amendment defines the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” in the district in which the crime was committed. The accused has the right to be informed of the charges against him, can cross-examine witnesses, can bring forward witnesses in their favor, and has the right to a lawyer. This amendment has been discussed in the news recently in the context of the long wait in jail (over a year and a half) without formal charges or a trial for individuals who were present at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, which some believe is denying them this right to a “speedy and public trial."

The Seventh Amendment provides for trial by jury when the value of the dispute is greater than twenty dollars, and once a decision is made, the person cannot be re-tried for the same crime. 

The Eighth Amendment protects citizens from excessive bail, fines and from “cruel and unusual” punishments. Again, this amendment has been discussed in various media when describing the conditions that the January 6th prisoners have lived in, and the lack of medical care alleged by some of these prisoners. The $10 Million bail set for Paul Manafort prior to his trial was also alleged as being excessive (since individuals awaiting trial for similar crimes had only a fraction of this amount of bail set). 

The Ninth Amendment states that rights defined in the Constitution (e.g., of the government) cannot cause the suppression of any individual rights “retained by the people.” In other words, the rights of the individual always outrank those of the government when they are in conflict. 

This raises the question asked by many recently: is this still true? As individuals are our personal rights being protected? Or are we watching the slow erosion of rights and the suppression of those who do not believe in current governmental policies and speak out against them?

The Tenth Amendment states that any “powers not delegated, nor prohibited by it to the States” are reserved for the people. In other words, any power or authority that the Constitution does not assign to the government is automatically held by the states and the people.

Understanding our bill of rights is critical, especially in the context of current events. If we as citizens do not ensure that our rights are protected, we could eventually lose them, especially if “big government” continues to attempt to increase its authority – and potential control – over citizens. Whether it is censorship by the media, being designated as a “terrorist group” if you are a group of mothers who wish to speak out at a school board meeting, or being handcuffed and searched by agents of the Department of Justice when a citizen has not received a prior request to provide information, it is important that we ask these questions, and seek responsible answers for protecting our constitutional rights.

The protection of personal and states rights is constitutional and was encoded in this document. This is why a return to a government that is under constitutional law is so important to protect those rights.

The erosion of our basic rights as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is being challenged daily. Government overreach has crept into every corner of our lives to slowly chip away at our rights.

It’s time to take a stand. Join the Convention of States movement and SIGN THE PETITION letting your local legislators know that you support states’ rights. Get involved – before it’s too late!

To read “How well do you know the Constitution – Part 1” click HERE.



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