Guest editorial: On the Bill of Rights

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Published: 6/29/2019 7:17:46 AM

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for The Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence.

Have you seen the musical “1776”? If so, you can easily picture the scene when the founders of our country were meeting in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, trying to thrash out the details of a document that would set up an entire system of government for the American States. Hot in their wigs and woolen suits, cranky and argumentative, they showed up and left the meetings unpredictably. The New Hampshire contingent arrived two months late, several delegates left early. Rhode Island bailed on the whole thing. It was hard even to get a quorum when a vote was called.

Philosophically, there were big differences of opinion about how much power should be given to the federal government, and how much left to the individual states. And then there were other huge issues to work out, like how to deal with slavery, the structure of the judicial and executive branches, government financing, voter representation and citizen’s rights.

They eventually got a document they could mostly agree on, but they couldn’t get it approved by all 13 states. So they met again in 1789 to consider several amendments written by James Madison to address several individual rights and liberties not specified in the Constitution itself. Ten of these amendments were eventually approved by all the states. These first ten are now known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

So how do these relate to our lives? Well, these amendments laid out what are probably some of the most important features of what we think the United States of America represents.

The First Amendment protects our freedom of religion and speech, and the right to a free press, the right to assemble in groups, and the right to ask the government to right wrongs. Thanks to this we can choose to accept or not accept any set of religious beliefs and worship the way we choose. No one is allowed to interfere with this. We can say or write what we think, and we can disagree with or make fun of what others say without fear, although people are not allowed to make dangerous or irresponsible statements that harm others. Reporters and writers can interpret events as they see fit, and we can listen to them or not, without fear of censorship. We can join clubs or political parties or groups for pretty much any purpose without fear of government oversight. And we are allowed to tell representatives of government how we think it should act.

The Second Amendment gives us the right to own guns for protection, hunting and recreation. This is a big topic of debate now, due to the large number of guns in our country.

The Third Amendment says that citizens will not be required to house and feed troops in their homes, at least in peacetime.

The Fourth Amendment has to do with the rights of people who are suspected of crimes. Before a person’s home, car, body or possessions can be searched, a judge must agree that there is a good reason for it.

The Fifth Amendment includes the assumption that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. This amendment also contains the guarantee against self-incrimination, which we know as “pleading the Fifth”. People can choose to remain silent instead. In the past this has protected both organized crime members, and people who refused to give up the names of friends thought to be communists. The Fifth Amendment also provides for due process. This is a guarantee that certain legal procedures will be followed before someone is given a penalty.

The Sixth and Seventh Amendments provide for fair and speedy trials, the right to question accusers, and the right to a lawyer. They guarantee the right to a trial by jury.

The Eighth Amendment protects people from unreasonable bail or fines. Importantly it also rules against cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments speak to the rights of individuals and states that are not covered in the other amendments. This is one way that the Constitution allows for growth and change.

In all, 33 amendments have been proposed by Congress, and 27 have been ratified by the states. Some of these have been civil rights milestones in the progress of our democracy, outlawing slavery, and defining citizenship and voting rights.

Catherine Keppler, a retired public school science teacher who lives in Greenfield, is the author of this piece.



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