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Chapter 4: The Bill of Rights

Chapter Overviews

As you read in Chapter 3, the Constitution might not have been ratified without the promise of a Bill of Rights. Added in 1791, the first 10 amendments place strict limits on how the national government can use its power over the people. The First Amendment protects five basic civil liberties: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments were written to ensure fair legal treatment for those accused of crimes. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail or fines and forbids cruel or unusual punishment. The Seventh Amendment concerns civil cases. Today lawmakers and citizens still argue over the exact meaning of the Second Amendment. Was it intended to apply only to a militia, or were all citizens guaranteed the right to "keep and bear arms"? According to the Third Amendment soldiers may not be quartered in private homes during peacetime. The Framers of the Constitution also realized that they could not cover every circumstance that might occur in the nation's history. The Ninth Amendment makes it clear that citizens have other rights beyond those listed in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment states that any power not specifically given to the national government is reserved for the states.

Other key amendments were passed to extend protection to all Americans. They were also written to control the power of state governments. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are sometimes called the Civil War Amendments. They were written to prohibit slavery and ensure citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment extended voting rights to women. The struggle for civil rights was not over. During the twentieth century efforts to organize a movement against discrimination led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. Important Supreme Court decisions, key leaders—including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and public demonstrations all moved the country along the road to equality. One of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In spite of all this, the struggle for equal rights is not over, but continues today.

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