The English phrase "civil liberty" was coined in a 1788 speech by James Wilson, a Pennsylvania state politician advocating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As he said at the time:
We have remarked, that civil government is necessary to the perfection of society. We now remark that civil liberty is necessary to the perfection of civil government. Civil liberty is natural liberty itself, divested only of that part, which, placed in the government, produces more good and happiness to the community than if it had remained in the individual. Hence it follows, that civil liberty, while it resigns a part of natural liberty, retains the free and generous exercise of all the human faculties, so far as it is compatible with the public welfare.The concept of civil liberties dates back much further, however, and most likely predates the concept of universal human rights. The 13th-century English Magna Carta refers to itself as the "great charter of the liberties of England, and of the liberties of the forest" (magna carta libertatum), but we can trace the origin of civil liberties back much further to the Sumerian praise poem of Urukagina (24th century BCE), which establishes the civil liberties of orphans and widows and creates checks and balances to prevent government abuses of power.
In a contemporary U.S. context, the phrase "civil liberties" generally brings to mind the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a progressive advocacy and litigation organization that has promoted the phrase as part of its efforts to protect the authority of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The American Libertarian Party also claims to protect civil liberties, but has deemphasized civil liberties advocacy over the past several decades in favor of a more traditional form of paleoconservatism that prioritizes "state's rights" rather than personal civil liberties.
Neither major U.S. political party has a particularly impressive record on civil liberties, though the Democratic Party has historically been stronger on most issues due to its demographic diversity and relative independence from the Religious Right. Although the American conservative movement has had a more consistent record with respect to the Second Amendment and eminent domain, conservative politicians do not generally use the phrase "civil liberties" when referring to these issues and tend to avoid talking about the Bill of Rights for fear of being labeled moderate or progressive. As has been largely true since the 18th century, civil liberties are not generally associated with professedly conservative or traditionalist movements. When we consider the fact that professedly liberal or progressive movements have also historically failed to prioritize civil liberties, the necessity of aggressive civil liberties advocacy, independent of other political objectives, becomes clear.
"You don't have any civil liberties if you're dead." ~ Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), in a 2006 interview regarding post-9/11 legislation
"Manifestly, there is no civil-liberties crisis in this country. People who claim there is must have a different goal in mind." ~ Ann Coulter, in a 2003 column