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The Evolution of American Civil Liberties

A Short History


The civil liberties we have today weren't created; they evolved.

Inch by inch, technicality by technicality, the British system of law that once allowed for the absolute rule of the monarch gradually became a system that respected Parliament and, when it was transplanted to the United States, eliminated the monarchy from the equation entirely. The Bill of Rights, once an unenforceable series of promises, has become the centerpiece of our criminal justice system. Here's how it happened.

1215: The Power of the Monarchy is Reduced

The Magna Carta restricts the absolute power of British monarchs, holding them accountable to the rule of law.

1689: The Rights of English Subjects Are Defined

The English Bill of Rights guarantees free speech to members of Parliament, bans cruel and unusual punishment, and supports a limited right to bear arms.

1776: The Power of the Monarchy is Rejected

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Britain, Thomas Jefferson argues that the sole legitimate purpose of government is to protect individual rights.

1787: A New Democratic System is Established

The new U.S. Constitution establishes limited roles for the President and Congress, but does not yet grant significant power to the Supreme Court.

1789: The Rights of U.S. Citizens Are Defined

The U.S. Bill of Rights protects the natural rights of U.S. citizens from infringement by U.S. Congress, but because the Supreme Court has no power to strike down legislation, it is in effect little more than a statement of principles. At this point in history it applies exclusively to the U.S. government--and not to U.S. states, which have their own, separate bills of rights.

1803: A Mechanism for Protecting Rights is Created

In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court strikes down its first law and in so doing establishes its power to strike down unconstitutional legislation.

1868: The Rights of U.S. Citizens Are More Clearly Defined

The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified. Although its original purpose is to limit the efforts of Southern states to severely restrict the rights of recently freed slaves, it effectively makes individual states accountable to the human rights standards established in the Bill of Rights--though it will be more than a half century before the Supreme Court comes to that conclusion.

1925: State Legislatures Must Respect the Rights of U.S. Citizens

In Gitlow v. New York, the Supreme Court holds that states are bound by the U.S. Bill of Rights by way of the Fourteenth Amendment. The means by which the Fourteenth Amendment extends the power of the Bill of Rights is most commonly referred to as the incorporation doctrine.

1965: The Right to Be Left Alone is Defined

In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court holds that the Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution imply a right to privacy. This right to privacy will later be cited in court rulings legalizing abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) and striking down laws prohibiting gay sex (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003).
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