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United States Constitution | Study Guide

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United States Constitution | Amendments 1–10 : Bill of Rights | Summary

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Summary

Amendment 1

The First Amendment establishes free speech and forbids Congress from making any laws infringing upon freedom of religion. It also creates a free press and protects people's rights to gather peacefully and petition the government.

Amendment 2

Not only the military but also regular civilians have the right to "keep and bear arms." In other words, weapons are not restricted to the U.S. military: the general populace also has the legal right to own and take up weapons to protect themselves.

Amendment 3

When the United States is not at war, soldiers may not be forcibly housed with a citizen against that citizen's will. In times of war this is also illegal, though Congress may pass more specific laws to that effect.

Amendment 4

In the case of search and seizure of a citizen's home or property, a warrant must be obtained and can only be granted if probable cause can be officially established. This is to protect citizens "against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Amendment 5

For major federal-level crimes, the accused must be charged by a grand jury. This doesn't apply to members of the military and navy, who have their own court systems. Also, this amendment outlaws double jeopardy, meaning a person cannot be charged twice for the same crime. People also cannot be required to be a witness against themselves. Unless there is "due process of law," a person may not "be deprived of life, liberty, or property."

Amendment 6

Anyone accused of a crime has a right to "a speedy and public trial" and must be tried by an impartial jury in the area where the crime was committed. The accused must also be told what the crime is they are accused of. The accused has the right to be present when witnesses testify against them as well as the right to a lawyer and their own witnesses.

Amendment 7

The Seventh Amendment extends the right to a trial by jury to federal civil cases where a value of over 20 dollars is at stake. It is not necessarily applicable to state cases, which may be tried by a jury or simply before a judge.

Amendment 8

Bail for an accused person cannot be set to an excessive amount, nor can overly large fines be levied. "Cruel and unusual punishment" is not legally allowed as a sentence for any crime. Cruel and unusual punishment is not defined, but it has broadly been taken to include punishments such as torture, punishment in extreme disproportion to the crime, and overly miserable prison conditions.

Amendment 9

The Ninth Amendment proclaims the protection of other fundamental rights not specifically listed in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. The amendment gives room for flexibility in determining what other rights a citizen should have.

Amendment 10

Any powers not expressly given to the federal government by the Constitution remain in the hands of state governments or citizens. This means the federal government cannot claim powers not specifically granted to it in the Constitution.

Analysis

The Bill of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. It was passed in 1791, two years after the initial ratification of the Constitution. During the ratification of the articles of the Constitution, there was a general outcry for language that would clearly outline the rights of U.S. citizens and limit the power of the federal government.

The First Amendment is one of the best-known provisions of the Constitution. It guarantees people the right to freedom of speech, declares a free press, establishes the rights of people to gather in peaceful protest, guarantees freedom of religion, and separates church and state. This amendment has been referred to in countless cases since its creation, and it has become a foundation block of society in the United States.

It is important to examine the context of the Second Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was written, the main focal point was the granting and protection of citizens' rights and the limiting of the federal government's powers. The framers wanted to put a check on the military and the federal government, so that if either ever gained too much power, citizens would have the means and the ability to defend themselves and their communities. The Second Amendment has been a source of intense controversy in the modern era because gun violence has become a widespread problem in the United States. There are ongoing debates over whether civilians should be able to buy military-grade weapons, what kinds of checks should be in place for gun buyers and owners, and so on. The right to own and carry weapons is protected by the Constitution, but as with other parts of the document, the ongoing question is how to adapt its meaning to a world of changing technology and social norms.

The Fifth Amendment is where we see the roots of "the right to remain silent," a phrase uttered in every cop show ever made, as well as the oft-used courtroom phrase "I plead the fifth." Basically, people cannot be legally compelled to incriminate themselves. Thus, remaining silent and not saying anything that could be incriminating against them in court is a right of any accused individual.

In this amendment there is also reference to "due process of law," which is recognized as a fundamental right. Due process of law encompasses the process of just treatment and a right to trial by a jury of peers, and this is legally the right of any citizen of the country. The details of this process and different rights it entails are outlined in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments.

The Eighth Amendment, which outlaws the use of "cruel and unusual punishment" for anyone convicted of a crime, has been a subject of some controversy. Originally, this amendment probably referred to traditional types of torture that were common punishment for various crimes. These punishments were often greatly out of line with the magnitude of the crime itself, such as chopping off a hand or deporting the prisoner to a work colony for the crime of stealing a small item. This amendment tries to ensure punishment more aligned with the crime committed, and it definitively outlaws torture. The death penalty, however, has traditionally not been considered "cruel and unusual punishment" and is not illegal on the federal level. It has been up to states to ban or affirm the use of the death penalty as a punishment. In recent years, Guantánamo Bay has stirred concern and conversation around this amendment. Guantánamo is a U.S. detention facility in Cuba, and many of the inmates there have claimed to be deprived of their Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendment rights. This includes not being allowed representation or trial, accusations of torture methods, and other concerns.

The 9th and 10th Amendments were the framers' way of trying to establish checks and securities against unforeseen future questions of rights and power. Both amendments attempt to keep the power in the hands of the citizens, and the 10th Amendment in particular puts in place a final safeguard limiting the federal government only to the powers expressly given to it in the Constitution. This provides a safety net for any future situation in which the federal government tries to claim powers not granted to it.

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