The Bill of Rights: Necessary or just Evil?

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This was an essay I wrote for a college assignment. It is about the Bill of Rights and the controversies they cause in today's society.

Submitted: December 12, 2010

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Submitted: December 12, 2010

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In 1776, we became our own country, the United States of America. The men responsible for that, our founding fathers, created a document that described how we were to be governed. That document was the U.S. Constitution. In it, it sets down rules for our Congress, President, the Legislative branch, the states, and how to add new amendments to the Constitution. After the Constitution was ratified, some thought that there should be more rules setting down specific rights for each person. These first ten ratified amendments were called The Bill of Rights.
When the Bill of Rights was written, it was a tumultuous time for America. We had recently won a war that separated us from England and King George’s rule. At the time he had the ability to do anything he wanted to the Colonies, ‘his’ Colonies. He could set our taxes and raise them whenever he chose, create laws and decide punishment how he chose, and basically do whatever he wanted without having our say in it just because he was the King and we were his subjects. The founding fathers didn’t appreciate that. They believed everyone should have representation in their government and they believed that every person should have certain inalienable rights, things that the government cannot take away. That was why they wrote what they did in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. However, there was no way they could have foreseen how the world would change and how their words could be construed and problems that could arise from their non-specific wordings.
The first ratified amendment concerns various forms of free speech. 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 grievance.” In lay terms, this means that we have the right to practice the religion of our choosing and that the government cannot show preference for one over the other; we have the right to say what we want without fear of punishment; and we can peacefully assemble in protest if the government does something we do not like.
Under a king’s rule, you were not allowed to say anything against him. You could not disagree with his laws, you could not even say that he was doing a poor job of leading the country. If you did and anyone heard you, they could turn you in to the local authorities and you would be punished. That punishment could be anything from a fine to being put to death. Mr. Madison and the rest of the men in Congress felt that you should be able to disagree with your leaders, at least by using your words or peaceably protesting.
This is, debatably, the most controversial amendment they wrote. At the time, the founding fathers just wanted future generations to be able to disagree with their leaders and be allowed to speak aloud without fear of prosecution. Today, we can’t seem to find a balance between just being able to speak our minds and using free speech to denigrate others. Free speech is being used to shield journalists from making public confidential information about the troops and war issues; it is even going so far to shield people who physically harass others with differing opinions on abortion or the wearing of fur. People today use this amendment to say anything or do anything they please and call it freedom of speech without thinking about what they are doing or whether they even should do or say something.
The other part of the amendment, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, protects our right to practice whatever religion we choose. In England, and most parts of Europe, you were only allowed to openly practice whatever the king practiced, which was usually a form of Christianity. In England, it was both Catholic and Reformed. Catholic in that it views itself as a part of the universal church of Jesus Christ in unbroken continuity with the early apostolic church and Reformed in that it has been shaped by the doctrinal principles of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. If you didn’t go along with that religion, you were punished. The founding father wanted all the people coming over to the new country to feel free to practice the religion of their choosing and to pray to whatever God they wanted to.
This part seems to only come under controversy when we find people who practice something a little out of the ordinary. There are more and more African immigrants coming over now than before. They practice forms of religion that use animal sacrifice during their rituals. For most people, this is weird and wrong and should be against the law. However, because of the inclusion in the Bill of Rights, this is allowed. They do have to follow certain disposal rules, but that is just because of the possibility of spreading disease. Another, more recent, controversy has arisen involving Muslims. After 9/11, there was a lot of anti-Islamic sentiment, which was understandable since the people involved were Islamic. In Manhattan, where the biggest effect was felt, an Islamic group was attempting to build a mosque (an Islamic center of worship) near Ground Zero. People felt this was wrong because Muslims had destroyed the area. Although, I’m not sure that this was a religion-based problem, but more of a geographical-based problem; people weren’t protesting their right to practice Islam, just that they didn’t want them to practice it so close to Ground Zero.
“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.” This second amendment gives the people the right to own guns and weapons.
This was originally intended for the militia, a certain amount of men charged with keeping us safe, the beginnings of our military. King George did not want us to have a military because then we would be able to protect ourselves, or in his mind, revolt, against his army and people he had in the Colonies ruling over us. So he made the owning of guns and weapons illegal. 
Now that we have a specific military and no longer have the need for smaller militias, this amendment gets twisted and turned in almost every way imaginable. Now it is being used to say that any person, living anywhere, whether in a big city or small town not only can, but needs to own a gun. Some people say they need one to protect themselves from people coming into their homes with the intention of robbing them or physically harming them. But do we really need semi-automatic weapons for protection? Guns seem to harm innocent people by accident more than they seem to protect people from potential criminals.
“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 third amendment tells us that the government will not force us to house a soldier, whether in peace time or war time, without my permission. In the past, such as during the Revolutionary War and previous wars, there was no such thing as military housing. Soldiers either lived at home or in tents wherever the battle was being fought. Therefore, when the weather got severe, families in the area were forced to let them stay with them. As time passed and technology grew, we devised ways to protect ourselves from the weather. We started constructing temporary shelters so that soldiers were protected from the elements without being forced to occupy someone’s home. We have also started building military housing to house soldiers during peacetime. There doesn’t seem to be any information regarding controversies about this amendment.
The fourth amendment is “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.” This amendment protects us from any law enforcement agencies searching our person or belongings without a reason that has some sort of evidence backing it up.
The people that King George sent over here to police us were allowed to barge into our houses and search our belongings if they even thought we had done something wrong. If I said that my neighbor stole a necklace from me and was keeping it in her closet, they could search her whole house for it without any other probably cause. They could stop us on the street and take our watch from us, basically stealing it, if they wanted to and we would have no legal recourse.
This seems to be a good amendment with little controversy around it. People should feel secure in their homes and in their person and not have to worry about any law enforcement agencies barging into our homes for no reason. This one also seems to be used a lot by defense lawyers when they feel that the police got a piece of evidence wrongfully.
The fifth amendment concerns prosecution. “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 offense 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.” Unless we are in the military and in war time, we cannot be charged with a serious crime unless we have been indicted by a grand jury; we cannot be tried for the same crime twice; we cannot implicate ourselves in a crime nor be imprisoned without a fair trial; and the government cannot use our property without paying us for it.
The sixth amendment governs how we are to be tried. “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 defense.” This tells us that our trial cannot drag on for too long; we are to be judged where the crime was committed by people who have nothing to do with it, to be told what the crime is, to know who is accusing us, to present people who believe we are innocent, and to have a lawyer assist us.
During this time period, if you were awaiting your trial, you could be in jail for months, if not years, before the trial even started. Then, once you started trial, there was no regulation of who would judge you. You could end up being judged by the judge, who, just because he doesn’t like you or he liked the victim better, could find you guilty. You also might not ever find out who accused you of the crime, nor could you present a witness to provide you with an alibi.
This is another amendment with little controversy about the actual amendment. The most controversy seems to come up involving the victim’s family. For example, if you believe that someone murdered your mother, you would just want them punished, you don’t care about their rights, you just think they should go to jail for their crime no matter how it happens.
“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.” This seventh amendment tells us that in a civil trial, a trial where a person is accused by another person instead of the government, there has to be a jury trial and that jury’s decision is final.
This amendment is an extension of the sixth amendment. The sixth amendment guarantees the right to jury trials in criminal cases, but nothing specifically states anything about civil cases. The seventh amendment was added to protect the right to a jury trial in civil matters. 
There also doesn’t seem to be any real, substantial controversy to this amendment.
The eighth amendment “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” tells us that our bail or fines shall be something affordable and no cruel punishments can be ordered.
Previously, if you got arrested, the judge alone would be the one to decide whether you got bail and how much it was. There was no one to say if the bail was too much or even if you should be allowed bail. If the judge didn’t like you, or if you happened to be the farmer with adjacent land that the judge wanted, he could throw you in jail and give you bail that was so high, your family might have to sell the land in order to get you out. There could be many different situations, but it was always completely up to the judge and he could do what he wanted. This amendment was added to stop that practice. Now, it is still up to the judge to decide if you get bail, but he has certain rules to follow. Different crimes may or may not get bail as a rule. If you are a first-time offender, no matter what your offense is, unless it’s a capital offense like murder, you will most likely get bail. Different crimes also get different amounts of bail. Burglary has a limit, sex offenses have a limit, and even murder can’t go above a certain amount of money. There are other factors that judges are required to take into account when awarding you bail. A person working at McDonalds, making minimum wage would be awarded a lower bail for car theft than the professional football player making millions a year who committed the same crime.
The amount of bail doesn’t usually cause any conflict, unless a lawyer feels that his client should be awarded a lower amount or the prosecutor feels the amount should be higher, but they each have the right to present evidence to the judge at arraignment. The conflict generally comes when, for emotional reasons, people think that bail shouldn’t be awarded at all. For example, when a murderer is awarded bail and the victim’s family doesn’t agree with it, or when a rapist is able to pay bail and is free until their trial and the victim is scared they will be raped again. In general, the amendment itself, stating that if you do get bail, it should be something you can afford, seems to be fairly controversy free.
The other side of this amendment is “…nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Again, previously, if you were found guilty and punished, the punishment could be anything. During certain time periods, slicing you open and removing your entrails while you were still alive and could feel the pain was a popular one. Another was being thrown into debtor’s prison for failing to pay your bills on time or at all. This gave you no chance to work and earn the money to pay off your bills. These were deemed cruel and unusual and the founding fathers didn’t want them to continue.
This amendment generally seems to make sense. The big, glaring exception is the death sentence. The anti-death sentence side says that, no matter what crime you were convicted of, killing you isn’t right, that the methods of death are cruel and unusual and go against the eighth amendment. The pro-death sentence people say that there are some crimes so heinous that the perpetrator should be put to death to make sure that he is never allowed the chance to either get out of jail and do it again, or that it was so horrible that he just shouldn’t be allowed to live, period. They also state that the primary method, lethal injection is painless, and therefore not cruel or unusual. 
Amendment nine: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Just because the constitution doesn’t specifically state any other rights doesn’t mean we do not have them. 
When the Constitution was originally written, some of the men involved felt that it was missing certain rights that every person should have. However, some of the men involved felt that if they stated specific rights then anything that wasn’t specifically listed in the Constitution wouldn’t be covered and the government could control people’s actions. That was the reasoning for adding this amendment.
There doesn’t seem to be any substantial evidence for controversies regarding this amendment. There are some people that try to use this amendment as an argument when involved with the law, but any evidence is twisted and unsubstantiated by proof and is eventually thrown out of court. 
The last amendment, “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” states that any powers not stated to be federal powers are left to the state government to decide. 
The founding fathers couldn’t agree on whether to have one big governing body that covered the entire country or to leave power to the individual state. At the time, there were already thirteen individual colonies. Certain, defined areas that already had people in place to govern them and to make sure that their voices were heard during the writing of the Constitution. The argument was made that the government should stay that way, each area should have its own voice and be able to govern their people they way they felt was needed. Others were used to the way they had been ruled in England, where there was one governing body that ruled the whole country and believed it should stay that way. The founding fathers were never able to come to a consensus; therefore, this amendment was added as a kind of compromise. This gave both sides what they wanted; a big federal government that has power over the whole country and also smaller state governments that govern individual areas and needs not able to be heard by the federal government. 
Until recently, this amendment did not cause any problems. However, new legislation in some states to legalize marijuana for medical reasons goes against the federal law that says that any possession of marijuana is illegal. This has created some legal problems for people who are medically allowed to be in possession of it. This situation isn’t exactly a problem caused by this amendment, but it is related. If the states didn’t have the power to pass laws not specifically covered by the federal government, they wouldn’t be able to pass laws that almost, but not quite, go against the federal laws.
As you can see, James Madison and the other men responsible for shaping our future government had good intentions. There was no way they could have foreseen how the world and it’s technologies could turn out, nor could they have foreseen that people could or would take their idealistic visions and turn them and twist them to suit their own needs. I do not believe that we should not have the Bill of Rights, but I am glad that we have the ability to write new amendments so we can change our laws as we grow.


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