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Origins of Civil Liberties in the United States: History & Timeline

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  • 0:05 The Origin and History…
  • 3:26 Right to Privacy
  • 4:15 Freedom of Speech
  • 4:56 Right to Bear Arms
  • 5:21 Importance
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the origin of civil liberties in the United States. We will take a closer look at where the civil liberties came from, what they entail and what they mean to society today.

The Origin of Civil Liberties

Civil liberties are defined as rights guaranteed to the people by the United States Constitution and by court-made law or legislation. These liberties allow us to speak out freely against our government, express our opinions, organize protests and worship in whatever way we choose. It was important to the early settlers that we have these liberties in order to be protected from unnecessary government intrusion. These liberties are included in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, and include the right to privacy, the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.

History

In the late 1600s, England established something similar to our Bill of Rights. This included many of the civil liberties that we enjoy today - including the right of free speech and a form of the right to bear arms. When the British settlers came to the United States and established the 13 original colonies, they brought with them British thinking and rule.

In the mid-1700s during our declaration of independence from Britain, it was argued that one of the most important roles of government was to protect our personal rights. When the United States Constitution was written, many of our modern civil liberties were incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

However, the United States Supreme Court did not yet have power to declare laws or legislation unconstitutional; therefore, the Bill of Rights was merely a statement of beliefs that had no legal backing.

During the early 1800s, Marbury v. Madison gave power to the United States Supreme Court to strike down legislation that is found to be unconstitutional. This gave great protection to our civil liberties that are included within the Bill of Rights because there was an entity to protect them.

In the later 1800s, the Fourteenth Amendment, which incorporated our civil liberties found in the Bill of Rights to the states, was ratified. What this meant was that the individual states could not create laws that were against the Bill of Rights and conversely extended the protections included within the Bill of Rights to the citizens from the states. This was not challenged and confirmed until 1925 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states are definitively bound by the Bill of Rights via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Our civil liberties continued to be tested, interpreted and extended to this day. In 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that several amendments to the Bill of Rights imply a right to privacy. This landmark ruling paved the way for future civil liberty cases, such as those on abortion and same-sex marriage, that are being challenged in the Supreme Court to this day.

Right to Privacy

The freedom of privacy is a civil liberty guaranteed to us by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution, which essentially states that if a right is not expressly stated in the Bill of Rights, that it doesn't mean it is not guaranteed to us. This civil liberty guarantees the right of a man and woman to marry and divorce. It guarantees that parents may discipline their child (within reason) how they choose and determine who may have contact with their child. The freedom of privacy civil liberty is also the civil liberty that guarantees the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy during an appropriate time frame and the right of a fetus to life after a certain length of time.

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