Vital Protection for Individual Liberties

The genius of the Constitution in organizing the federal government has given the United States extraordinary stability over the course of two centuries. The Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments guarantee the American people the fullest possible opportunity to enjoy fundamental human rights.

In moments of national crisis, it is tempting for governments to attempt to suspend these rights in the interest of national security. In the United States, such steps have always been taken reluctantly and under the most scrupulous safeguards. During wartime, for example, it has been necessary to censor mail between the United States and foreign countries, and especially from the battlefronts to families back home. But not even in wartime has the constitutional right to a fair trial been abrogated. Persons accused of crimes -- and these include enemy nationals accused of spying, subversion and other dangerous activities -- are given the right to defend themselves and, under the American system, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of subjects. One of the most far reaching is the 14th, ratified in 1868, by which a clear and simple definition of citizenship was established and a broadened guarantee of equal treatment under the law was confirmed. In essence, the 14th Amendment applied the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states. By other amendments, the judicial power of the national government was limited; the method of electing the president was changed; slavery was forbidden; the right to vote was protected against denial because of race, color, sex or previous condition of servitude; the congressional power to levy taxes was extended to incomes; and the election of U.S. senators by popular vote was instituted.

The most recent amendments include the 22nd, limiting the president to two terms in office; the 23rd, granting citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote; the 24th giving citizens the right to vote regardless of failure to pay a poll tax; the 25th, providing for filling the office of vice president when it becomes vacant in midterm; and the 26th, lowering the voting age to 18.

It is of significance that a majority of the 26 amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while only a few are concerned with amplifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.