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Happy Birthday, America

Power to the People!  Use It or Lose It.

The Fourth of July is when America celebrates its Independence Day.  Although the Bill of Rights came after the Declaration of Independence, it is truly the essence of what our new nation was created for.

Amendment I – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Government cannot impose a state religion upon you nor punish you for exercising the religion of your choice. You may express your opinions, write and publish what you wish, gather peacefully with others, and formally ask the government to correct injustices.

Amendment II – A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Individuals (“the people”) have the right to own and use weapons without interference from the government.

Amendment III – No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

The government cannot force you to house its agents.

Amendment IV – The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

You may not be arrested or “detained” arbitrarily. No agency of government may inspect or seize your property or possessions without first obtaining a warrant. To obtain a warrant, they must show specific cause for the search or seizure and swear under oath that they are telling the truth about these reasons. Furthermore, the warrant itself must state specifically and in detail the place, things, or people it covers. Warrants that are too general or vague are not valid; searches or seizures that exceed the terms of the warrant are not valid.

Amendment V – No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

No one outside the military may be tried for a serious crime without first being indicted by a grand jury (of citizens). Once found not guilty, a person may not be tried again for the same deed. You can’t be forced to be a witness or provide evidence against yourself in a criminal case. You can’t be sent to prison or have your assets seized without due process. The government can’t take your property without paying market value for it.

Amendment VI – In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Trials cannot be unreasonably postponed or held in secret. In any criminal case against you, you have a right to public trial by a jury of unbiased citizens (thus ensuring that the state can’t use a “party-line” judge to railroad you). The trial must be held in the state or region where the crime was committed. You cannot be held without charges. You cannot be held on charges that are kept secret from you. You have a right to know who is making accusations against you and to confront those witnesses in court. You have the right to subpoena witnesses to testify in your favor and a right to the services of an attorney.

Amendment VII – In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

The right to trial by jury extends to civil, as well as criminal, cases. Once a jury has made its decision, no court can overturn or otherwise change that decision except via accepted legal processes (for instance, granting of a new trial when an appeals court determines that your rights were violated in the original proceeding).

Amendment VIII – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Bail, fines, and punishments must all fit the crime and punishments must not be designed for cruelty.

Amendment IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

You have more rights than are specifically listed in the Bill of Rights.

Amendment X – 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.

The U.S. federal government has only those specific powers granted to it by the Constitution. All other powers belong either to the states or to individuals.

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The Ninth and Tenth Amendments, interpreted together, would indicate that the federal government has only the authority granted to it, while the people are presumed to have any right or power not specifically forbidden to them. The Bill of Rights as a whole is dedicated to describing certain key rights of the people that the government is categorically forbidden to remove, abridge, or infringe.

Of course, additional articles of amendment have been added, seventeen, to be exact, including the abolition of slavery and the suffrage of women and non-whites.

The Bill of Rights is clearly intended as a tool to ensure that the people are in charge of their government, not the other way around.  But this can only remain true if we are vigilant and involved.

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  • July 5, 2010, 2:42 am Rena

    Good to read this again, Beth, it’s been a long time.

    And I must say, despite all the justified grumbling I hear from my American friends, reading the bill of rights as an ex-pat, I am jealous. I wish we had one, too.

  • July 5, 2010, 8:41 am Beth

    Indeed; we do take it for granted, I’m afraid. Many Americans do not realize that most other countries do NOT guarantee such things. And it is all to easy to let it slip from our hands, especially when pressured by fears.

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
    — Benjamin Franklin

  • July 5, 2010, 8:34 pm Terry

    Thanks so much Beth for putting this out there!
    -=T=-