What Are Civil Liberties?


The Constitution as written in 1787 did not include a Bill of Rights, although the idea of including one was proposed and, after brief discussion, dismissed in the final week of the Constitutional Convention. The framers of the Constitution believed they faced much more pressing concerns than the protection of civil rights and liberties, most notably keeping the fragile union together in the light of internal unrest and external threats.

Moreover, the framers thought that they had adequately covered rights issues in the main body of the document. Indeed, the Federalists did include in the Constitution some protections against legislative acts that might restrict the liberties of citizens, based on the history of real and perceived abuses by both British kings and parliaments as well as royal governors. In Article I, Section 9, the Constitution limits the power of Congress in three ways: prohibiting the passage of bills of attainder, prohibiting ex post facto laws, and limiting the ability of Congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

A bill of attainder is a law that convicts or punishes someone for a crime without a trial, a tactic used fairly frequently in England against the king’s enemies. Prohibition of such laws means that the U.S. Congress cannot simply punish people who are unpopular or seem to be guilty of crimes. An ex post facto law has a retroactive effect: it can be used to punish crimes that were not crimes at the time they were committed, or it can be used to increase the severity of punishment after the fact.

Finally, the writ of habeas corpus is used in our common-law legal system to demand that a neutral judge decide whether someone has been lawfully detained. Particularly in times of war, or even in response to threats against national security, the government has held suspected enemy agents without access to civilian courts, often without access to lawyers or a defense, seeking instead to try them before military tribunals or detain them indefinitely without trial. For example, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln detained suspected Confederate saboteurs and sympathizers in Union-controlled states and attempted to have them tried in military courts, leading the Supreme Court to rule in Ex parte Milligan that the government could not bypass the civilian court system in states where it was operating.Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866).

During World War II, the Roosevelt administration interned Japanese Americans and had other suspected enemy agents—including U.S. citizens—tried by military courts rather than by the civilian justice system, a choice the Supreme Court upheld in Ex parte Quirin (Figure).Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942); See William H. Rehnquist. 1998. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: William Morrow. More recently, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush and Obama administrations detained suspected terrorists captured both within and outside the United States and sought, with mixed results, to avoid trials in civilian courts. Hence, there have been times in our history when national security issues trumped individual liberties.

A photo of a group of people in a military commission, seated in chairs around a number of tables arranged in a U shape.
Richard Quirin and seven other trained German saboteurs had once lived in the United States and had secretly returned in June 1942. Upon their capture, a military commission (shown here) convicted the men—six of them received death sentences. Ex parte Quirin set a precedent for the trial by military commission of any unlawful combatant against the United States. (credit: Library of Congress)

Debate has always swirled over these issues. The Federalists reasoned that the limited set of enumerated powers of Congress, along with the limitations on those powers in Article I, Section 9, would suffice, and no separate bill of rights was needed. Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publius in Federalist No. 84, argued that the Constitution was “merely intended to regulate the general political interests of the nation,” rather than to concern itself with “the regulation of every species of personal and private concerns.” Hamilton went on to argue that listing some rights might actually be dangerous, because it would provide a pretext for people to claim that rights not included in such a list were not protected. Later, James Madison, in his speech introducing the proposed amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, acknowledged another Federalist argument: “It has been said, that a bill of rights is not necessary, because the establishment of this government has not repealed those declarations of rights which are added to the several state constitutions.”American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, “Madison Speech Proposing the Bill of Rights June 8 1789,” http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/madison-speech-proposing-the-bill-of-rights-june-8-1789.php (March 4, 2016). For that matter, the Articles of Confederation had not included a specific listing of rights either.

However, the Anti-Federalists argued that the Federalists’ position was incorrect and perhaps even insincere. The Anti-Federalists believed provisions such as the elastic clause in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution would allow Congress to legislate on matters well beyond the limited ones foreseen by the Constitution’s authors; thus, they held that a bill of rights was necessary. One of the Anti-Federalists, Brutus, whom most scholars believe to be Robert Yates, wrote: “The powers, rights, and authority, granted to the general government by this Constitution, are as complete, with respect to every object to which they extend, as that of any state government—It reaches to every thing which concerns human happiness—Life, liberty, and property, are under its controul [sic]. There is the same reason, therefore, that the exercise of power, in this case, should be restrained within proper limits, as in that of the state governments.”Constitution Society, “To the Citizens of the State of New-York,” http://www.constitution.org/afp/brutus02.htm (March 4, 2016). The experience of the past two centuries has suggested that the Anti-Federalists may have been correct in this regard; while the states retain a great deal of importance, the scope and powers of the national government are much broader today than in 1787—likely beyond even the imaginings of the Federalists themselves.

The struggle to have rights clearly delineated and the decision of the framers to omit a bill of rights nearly derailed the ratification process. While some of the states were willing to ratify without any further guarantees, in some of the larger states—New York and Virginia in particular—the Constitution’s lack of specified rights became a serious point of contention. The Constitution could go into effect with the support of only nine states, but the Federalists knew it could not be effective without the participation of the largest states. To secure majorities in favor of ratification in New York and Virginia, as well as Massachusetts, they agreed to consider incorporating provisions suggested by the ratifying states as amendments to the Constitution.

Ultimately, James Madison delivered on this promise by proposing a package of amendments in the First Congress, drawing from the Declaration of Rights in the Virginia state constitution, suggestions from the ratification conventions, and other sources, which were extensively debated in both houses of Congress and ultimately proposed as twelve separate amendments for ratification by the states. Ten of the amendments were successfully ratified by the requisite 75 percent of the states and became known as the Bill of Rights (Table).

Rights and Liberties Protected by the First Ten Amendments
First Amendment Right to freedoms of religion and speech; right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances
Second Amendment Right to keep and bear arms to maintain a well-regulated militia
Third Amendment Right to not house soldiers during time of war
Fourth Amendment Right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure
Fifth Amendment Rights in criminal cases, including due process and indictment by grand jury for capital crimes, as well as the right not to testify against oneself
Sixth Amendment Right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
Seventh Amendment Right to a jury trial in civil cases
Eighth Amendment Right to not face excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment
Ninth Amendment Rights retained by the people, even if they are not specifically enumerated by the Constitution
Tenth Amendment States’ rights to powers not specifically delegated to the federal government

Debating the Need for a Bill of Rights

One of the most serious debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was over the necessity of limiting the power of the new federal government with a Bill of Rights. As we saw in this section, the Federalists believed a Bill of Rights was unnecessary—and perhaps even dangerous to liberty, because it might invite violations of rights that weren’t included in it—while the Anti-Federalists thought the national government would prove adept at expanding its powers and influence and that citizens couldn’t depend on the good judgment of Congress alone to protect their rights.

As George Washington’s call for a bill of rights in his first inaugural address suggested, while the Federalists ultimately had to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in order to win ratification, and the Anti-Federalists would soon be proved right that the national government might intrude on civil liberties. In 1798, at the behest of President John Adams during the Quasi-War with France, Congress passed a series of four laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were drafted to allow the president to imprison or deport foreign citizens he believed were “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and to restrict speech and newspaper articles that were critical of the federal government or its officials; the laws were primarily used against members and supporters of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party.

State laws and constitutions protecting free speech and freedom of the press proved ineffective in limiting this new federal power. Although the courts did not decide on the constitutionality of these laws at the time, most scholars believe the Sedition Act, in particular, would be unconstitutional if it had remained in effect. Three of the four laws were repealed in the Jefferson administration, but one—the Alien Enemies Act—remains on the books today. Two centuries later, the issue of free speech and freedom of the press during times of international conflict remains a subject of public debate.

Should the government be able to restrict or censor unpatriotic, disloyal, or critical speech in times of international conflict? How much freedom should journalists have to report on stories from the perspective of enemies or to repeat propaganda from opposing forces?