The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities.
Generally speaking, governments are set up to make society a better, more orderly place to live. They do so by providing rules for conduct, by providing punishments for disobeying the rules, and by providing services to the citizenry. These tasks are typical of all governments. For example, in ancient Rome, murder, robbery, rebellion, and treason were all illegal - a common punishment, especially for slaves and non-citizens, was death by crucifixion. The Roman government also provided public entertainment as well as water and sewage services. Today, there are many things that are crimes, with various fines and jail terms, and sometimes even death, defined as penalties. And the services that are provided are myriad, from road maintenance to food stamps.
To do all of these things, governments must be vested with a certain degree of power. It is this power that can be most dangerous to the liberties of the people. To find out who committed a certain crime, police must be able to question suspects and witnesses, and be able to search for evidence. In a society where the government is omnipotent, the powers of the police to detain, question, and search, are unlimited. In fact, the power to determine guilt would be unlimited.
When the Framers of the Constitution met to to establish a new form of government, they were very careful about the powers they gave the government. Many of the Framers were political scholars, and the speeches given at the Convention are sprinkled with references to governments from ancient times right up to the then-current ones in Europe.
The Framers were concerned with a few things over all. They wanted to create a national government that was effective and powerful, but which did not infringe upon the rights of the individual, nor upon the powers of the states.
Individual rights in the original Constitution
Though there were some who pushed hard for a bill of rights in the new Constitution, there wasn't one specifically added in the Constitution. However, in what some have termed a "mini-Bill of Rights," some rights were guaranteed by the original Constitution.
In Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, there are three key individual rights that are protected:
"The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."
"No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."
The latter two, in Article 1, Section 10, are also prohibited of the states.
Habeas corpus, which requires an authority to prove to a court why it has cause to hold someone, is a key individual right. A bill of attainder is a bill written to punish one person or group of people. An ex post facto law is one which retroactively makes an act a crime. Though most of the Framers were skeptical of "paper barriers" to excess in governmental powers, these three prohibitions were seen to be important enough to be included from the beginning.
Article 3, Section 3 is also very specific about how a charge of treason can be brought, and that only a person convicted of treason can be punished for treason (no "corruption of blood").
There are a few other rights that are not directly protected, but which can be protected. Specifically, in Article 1, Section 8, Congress is granted the power to protect the "Writings and Discoveries" of individuals by legislation. These are better known as copyright and patent.
Some other rights are also not directly protected but are inherent. The members of the House of Representatives, for example, are to be elected "by the People of the several States." There must, therefore, be an inherent right of the people to elect Representatives. The 17th Amendment expanded this inherent right to the election of Senators.
The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights, which is recognized as the first ten amendments to the Constitution, lists many rights of individuals. It is important to note here why the a bill of rights was not originally included in the Constitution. Most of the Framers felt that any power to infringe upon individual rights would not be legal under the Constitution, since the power to infringe was not granted to the United States by the Constitution. But the arguments of the people who supported a bill of rights eventually prevailed, and guarantees were added to the Constitution within a few years. It is also important to note that the Bill of Rights does not grant people the listed rights. The Bill of Rights simply guarantees that the government will not infringe upon those rights. It is assumed that the rights pre-exist. It is an important distinction.
The Bill of Rights as a topic is discussed in much more detail elsewhere, but it is appropriate to list the individual rights that are included in the Bill of Rights. These are:
1st Amendment: Freedom of (or from) religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom to assemble. Freedom to petition the government.
2nd Amendment: Right to bear arms.
3rd Amendment: Freedom from quartering soldiers.
4th Amendment: Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrants must only be issued upon probable cause, and shall be specific.
5th Amendment: Criminal indictments must be by grand jury. Freedom from double jeopardy. Freedom from testifying against oneself. Right to face accusers. Right to due process. Right of just compensation for takings.
6th Amendment: Right to speedy trial. Right to impartial jury. Right to be informed of the charges upon which the accused is held. Right to face accusers. Right to produce witnesses for the accused. Right to legal counsel.
7th Amendment: Right to jury trial in civil cases. Facts found by a jury cannot be reexamined by another court.
8th Amendment: Freedom from excessive bail or fines. Freedom from cruel or unusual punishment.
9th Amendment: The listing of a right in any other part of the Constitution does not imply that other unlisted rights do not exist. Supreme Court decisions have found a handful of important rights that fall under the 9th Amendment, such as the right to privacy.
The Bill of Rights covered most of the most important rights that had been left out of the original Constitution. However, only time could reveal other important rights that had not been covered - or time allowed enough minds to be changed to allow other rights to gain enough popularity to be protected by an amendment.
13th Amendment: Right to not be a slave.
14th Amendment: Right to citizenship of any person born in the United States. Right to equal protection of the national and state laws. Right to be free of any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of a citizen. Right to be free of any law that deprives a person of life, liberty, or property without due process.
15th Amendment: Right to vote regardless of race or color.
17th Amendment: Right to vote for Senators.
19th Amendment: Right to vote regardless of gender.
23rd Amendment: Right to vote for presidential electors if a resident of Washington, D.C.
24th Amendment: Right to vote even if a poll tax or any other tax is unpaid.
26th Amendment: Right to vote guaranteed for any person at least 18 years old.
Responsibilities under the Constitution
With all these rights listed and guaranteed by the Constitution, many believe that the Constitution must impose a great number of responsibilities upon the individual as well. This is not the case. No where will you find an explicit list of responsibilities that the Constitution imposes.
However, the Constitution assumes some civil duties, and these are inherent in the Constitution.
For example, the Constitution presumes lawfulness. It is a responsibility, then, to obey the law. For those who do not, there are protections, but the presumption of lawfulness is apparent.
The Constitution sets rules for a conviction for treason against the United States. This presumes loyalty to the United States. It is a responsibility, then, to be loyal to the United States
The Constitution presumes juries, particularly an impartial one. It is a responsibility, then, to serve as an impartial juror when called.
The Constitution presumes an army and a navy, and provides the Congress with the power to raise armies. Service during war is also mentioned. It is a responsibility, then, to serve in the armed forces when called.
The Constitution is peppered with amendments that expanded the right to vote - many people, over several centuries, have worked hard to bring the vote to as many people as possible. With few exceptions, all persons, 18 or older, can vote in any public election. It is a responsibility, then, to vote.
The Constitution Society Web Site has a large, exhaustive list of constitutional rights, powers, and responsibilities at several levels, including personal and those of the government.