To protect individual rights, the framers of the United States Constitution added ten amendments to the document, which came into force in 1792, three years after the Constitution itself did. These amendments are collectively named the Bill of Rights.
Arguably, the First Amendment is also the most important to the maintenance of a democratic government. It states that “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.”
The first part of that statement reflects the framers’ experience with the long history of religious strife in Europe. They realized that religious discord can be explosive and cause tremendous disruption in politics. It would be doubly so if one religious sect were favored over all others. So, they ensured that federal government cannot interfere in the citizens’ practice of their religion.
The freedoms of speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government and seek redress of grievances proclaim that citizens have the right to call the government to account. Freedom of speech and press allows citizens to communicate their ideas verbally and in writing, while freedom of assembly lets them publicly express a common interest. The right to petition allows citizens to point out to the government where it did not follow the law, to seek changes, as well as damages for such missteps.
Of course, there are limits to these freedoms. One may not force the tenets of his or her religion on those who do not observe those beliefs. Harmful speech, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded room, is not protected, nor is a written lie that causes harm. As well, gatherings must be peaceful. Destruction of the property of others is not protected by the First Amendment. Continue reading from Voice of America
The members of the Continental Congress made only two minor changes in the opening paragraphs of Jefferson's draft declaration. In these two paragraphs, Jefferson developed some key ideas: "all men are created equal," "inalienable rights," "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Where did Jefferson get these ideas?
Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment. This was the period during the 17th and 18th centuries when thinkers turned to reason and science to explain both the physical universe and human behavior. Those like Jefferson thought that by discovering the "laws of nature" humanity could be improved. Jefferson did not invent the ideas that he used to justify the American Revolution. He himself said that he had adopted the "harmonizing sentiments of the day." These ideas were, so to speak, "in the air" at the time.
As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was well acquainted with British history and political philosophy. He also had read the statements of independence drafted by Virginia and other colonies as well as the writings of fellow revolutionaries like Tom Paine and George Mason. In composing the declaration, Jefferson followed the format of the English Declaration of Rights, written after the Glorious Revolution of 1689.
Most scholars today believe that Jefferson derived the most famous ideas in the Declaration of Independence from the writings of English philosopher John Locke. Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Government in 1689 at the time of England's Glorious Revolution, which overthrew the rule of James II. Locke wrote that all individuals are equal in the sense that they are born with certain "inalienable" natural rights. That is, rights that are God-given and can never be taken or even given away. Among these fundamental natural rights, Locke said, are "life, liberty, and property."
Locke believed that the most basic human law of nature is the preservation of mankind. To serve that purpose, he reasoned, individuals have both a right and a duty to preserve their own lives. Murderers, however, forfeit their right to life since they act outside the law of reason. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Locke therefore believed liberty should be far-reaching. Continue reading from Constitutional Rights Foundation