Issues and Trends in Civil Liberties Essay

Issues and Trends in Civil Liberties

The history of civil liberties in the United States since World War 1 has been dreary and disturbing. The success of civil liberties in this country is what drives its citizens to believe that the world can become a better place if free countries embrace liberal thought. To the United States, ways to uphold liberty while ensuring that order in the society is maintained have always been a question of debate (Donohue, 1985). On one side, there is the need to uphold individual liberties, while on the other one has to consider the overall impact that such liberties have on the society. The solution to this was to establish institutions that held rules and procedures to be followed in order to ensure that the Law governed the civil liberties.  However, this did not just happen. The realization of civil liberties took years of petitioning and agitation on the part of US residents before they could finally enjoy them.

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Civil liberties are protective and cover a broad range of positive elements that an individual is entitled to under the law (Hill, G &Hill, and K 2005). Basic rights are granted to people under the constitution, common law or other types of legislation that gives citizens the freedom to think, speak, assemble, worship, petition or organize events without being restrained or petitioned by the government. Civil rights further grant citizens the right to equal opportunities in education, governance and leadership.

Issues of civil liberties in the United States date back to when the country attained its independence. Upon drafting the new constitution, federalists argued that there was no need for a bill of rights. The draft constitution had stipulated everything that the government could do but lacked a clear statute on what the government could not do. To this effect, anti-federalists feared that this would give rise to a centralized government, which would not result in anything that the citizens wanted. As such, the constitution had to have clauses that addressed the plight of the citizenry (ACLU, 2002).  Thomas Jefferson argued that a Bill of Rights is what the citizen is entitled to against every government on earth, and it was one thing that the government should not refuse or interfere with (ACLU, 2002).

The American population could not trust the government to uphold its liberties.  They had acquired this view from the oppressive leaders of the British government and therefore treated their own rulers with suspicion. To assure them that their liberties would be upheld, the government made it a priority to contain government powers by upholding individual liberties.  Despite being part of the constitution, American citizens suffered under sex discrimination, poor working conditions, poor wages, banning of labor union activities, and physical coercion by the police, racism and religion (Donohue, 1985). Until the 1920’s, the bill of rights remain a part of the constitution that the ordinary citizen knew little about. Banning slavery and ensuring that African Americans were treated equally took the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. It would however take time before the rights could be enforced effectively.

In 1920, the American Civil Liberty Union was formed to address issues that arose among Americans. These issues never saw the light of day. This was because the citizens did not know how to invoke the bill of rights for their protection (Donohue, 1985).  Although this addressed individual liberties, those affecting groups of people were not acted upon in an efficient manner. A case in point was the rights of the working class (Kersch, 2004). Apart from government opposition, old rivalries between the American-whites and American-blacks were also a major issue that arose in the labor and rights movement. This was because the more liberal the work place became, the more the American-white realized the risk of loosing their jobs to the American-blacks (Kersch, 2004). As such, the civil rights movement and the labor movement became rival groups.


Undoubtedly, the United States has come a long way in the fight against government oppression on issues arising throughout history. First, the government had to deal with public fears that it would become too oppressive to the people if no legislation were in place. The fourteenth amendment was put in place to shield this gap. The 1964 civil rights Act, section 201 also came into place because of increased awareness among civil groups. There needed to be an assurance that all people regardless of their race, religion, color, origin or gender would have equal rights enjoying public goods, facilities and services (Coates, 2001).

Civil rights in the United States cover issues that other democracies in the world are wary to address. Such include the right to carry arms, covered under the second amendment of the constitution. The right to have a jury trial is also among the exceptional liberties that US citizens are entitled to.  The latter is addressed in the sixth amendment of the constitution.  The fact that these civil rights remain unrecognized by world-renowned bodies like the United Nations is testimony to the wide extent of liberality that Americans enjoy compared to other democracies in the world.

Among the few liberties that the US does not recognize, while the same is common practice in several democracies, is the right not to be executed upon conviction of murder. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, a legitimate government can measure the impact it has had on the masses by how free and happy individual men are. He also stated that commerce, industry and security are the only sure means to ensure prosperity and happiness among the people. The reality of the matter is that the civil liberties have propelled the United States to its place as the leading democracy in the world.


ACLU (2002). The Bill of Rights: a Brief History. American Civil Liberties Union Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

Coates, E.R. (2001). Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government.  Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

Donohue, W. A. (1985). The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union.  New York: Transaction Publishers

Hill, G.N & Hill, K.T. (2005). Civil Liberties. The free Dictionary by Fairflex.  Retrieved February 3, 2009 from

Kersch, K.I. (2004). Constructing Civil Liberties: Discontinuities in the Development of American Constitutional Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University press