Constitutional Rights: History, Denials & Achievements

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about constitutional rights in the United States. We will explore the history behind the U.S. Constitution and its implementation. We will also address incidents of constitutional achievements and denials.

What Are Constitutional Rights?

We hear a lot about ''rights'', but where do these ''rights'' come from? What about when the ''rights'' of one group interfere with the ''rights'' of another? These can be tricky issues that aren't easily resolved. In attempting to negotiate these issues, what is our guide? You got it! The U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and took effect the following year. This document is like a rule book for our government and its citizens. It spells out what powers the government does and doesn't have, as well as what rights citizens are entitled to.

The U.S. Constitution was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an 18th century intellectual movement emphasizing reason, skepticism toward authority, individualism, and humanism. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were strongly influenced by Enlightenment thinking. English political thinker John Locke was also very influential among America's ''Founding Fathers.'' According to John Locke, if the government abused its power, the people had the right to form a new government. As you can figure out, Lockean thinking helped provide the philosophical justification for the Declaration of Independence.

So what exactly are constitutional rights? Well, these are the rights American citizens are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution. Currently, the Constitution has 27 amendments. The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights and spell our specifically what constitutional rights Americans have. The Bill of Rights was adopted simultaneously with the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment, for example ensures that Americans have religious and political freedom. It makes it illegal for the government to establish a particular religion that all citizens must practice. The Second Amendment states that Americans have the constitutional right to own firearms. The Third Amendment states that soldiers cannot be quartered in one's private home without the owner's permission. We're not going to go through all of them, but you get the idea: these are all constitutional rights.

The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Constitutional Achievements

As great as the Bill of Rights was, it wasn't perfect. That is why other amendments were added later. Let's look at some important constitutional achievements along the way. While white Americans enjoyed freedom under the U.S. Constitution, African-Americans did not. Even as the Founders penned the Constitution, some of them owned slaves of their own. Slavery thrived in the United States throughout the first half of the 19th century. It was not until 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment that slavery was finally abolished. This was a major constitutional achievement. Finally, African-Americans could not be owned as property. The 14th and 15th Amendments further clarified and expanded aspects of racial equality.

Under the 15th Amendment, the right to vote could not be denied based on race, but what about on the basis of sex? Women were not allowed to vote nationwide until 1920. The women's suffrage movement was a national movement aimed at securing gender equality, specifically in the form of voting rights. It was popular throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, in 1920 under the 19th Amendment, women were granted the constitutional right to vote alongside men.

This 1913 poster was designed to promote the suffrage movement.

Constitutional Denials

So as we've just pointed out, constitutional rights were denied to African-Americans and women for years, but let's dig deeper and explore a few other specific incidents where rights have been blatantly denied.

In 1798 the United States was involved in an undeclared naval war with France called the ''Quasi War''. Concerned over maintaining morale and under the guise of ''national security'', President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four bills, some of which denied constitutional rights. Specifically, the Sedition Act made it a crime to slander or criticize the federal government. This act effectively suspended freedom of speech. Many supporters of Thomas Jefferson who criticized the Adams Administration were imprisoned. John Adams has been widely criticized by historians for signing this unconstitutional law.

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