Constitution of the United States

The Amendments

The Constitution has undergone gradual alteration with the growth of the country. Some of the 26 amendments were brought on by Supreme Court decisions. However, the first 10 amendments, which constitute the Bill of Rights, were added within two years of the signing of the federal Constitution in order to ensure sufficient guarantees of individual liberties. The Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. But since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), many of the guarantees contained in the Bill of Rights have been extended to the states through the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Bill of Rights

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of worship, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petition to the government for redress of grievances. This amendment has been the center of controversy in recent years in the areas of free speech and religion. The Supreme Court has held that freedom of speech does not include the right to refuse to testify before a Congressional investigating committee and that most organized prayer in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

The right to keep and bear arms—adopted with reference to state militias but interpreted (2008) by the Supreme Court as essentially an individual right—is guaranteed by the Second Amendment, while freedom from quartering soldiers in a house without the owner's consent is guaranteed by the Third Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable search and seizure, a safeguard only more recently extended to the states.

The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be held for "a capital or otherwise infamous crime" without indictment, be twice put in "jeopardy of life or limb" for the same offense, be compelled to testify against himself, or "be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." The privilege against self-incrimination has been the center of a great deal of controversy as a result of the growth of Congressional investigations. The phrase "due process of law," which appears in the Fifth Amendment, is also included in the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result there has been much debate as to whether both amendments guarantee the same rights. Those in favor of what is termed fixed due process claim that all the safeguards applied against the federal government should be also applied against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The supporters of the concept of flexible due process are only willing to impose those guarantees on the states that "are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of speedy and public trial by an impartial jury in all criminal proceedings, while the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right of trial by jury in almost all common-law suits. Excessive bail, fines and "cruel and unusual" punishment are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Ninth Amendment states that "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

By the Tenth Amendment "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Powers reserved to the states are often termed "residual powers." This amendment, like the commerce clause, has been a battleground in the struggle over states' rights and federal supremacy.

The Other Amendments

Of the succeeding sixteen amendments, the Eleventh, Seventeenth, Twenty-second and Twenty-third Amendments have already been discussed under Articles 1, 2, and 3. The Twelfth (1804) revised the method of electing President and Vice President. The Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) are the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments; they abolish slavery, while guaranteeing civil rights and suffrage to U.S. citizens, including former slaves. The Sixteenth Amendment (1913) authorizes the income tax. Prohibition was established by the Eighteenth Amendment (1919) and repealed by the Twenty-first (1933). The Nineteenth (1920) grants woman suffrage. The Twentieth (1933) abolishes the so-called lame-duck Congress and alters the date of the presidential inauguration. The poll tax and any other tax made a requirement for voting in primaries and elections for federal office was outlawed by the Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964). The Twenty-fifth (1967) establishes the procedure for filling the office of Vice President between elections and for governing in the event of presidential disability. The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) lowers the voting age in all elections to 18. The Twenty-seventh Amendment (1992), first proposed in 1789, establishes procedures for Congressional pay increases.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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