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Constitution of the United States, Amendments

Amendment states, United States senators, minority rights, personal liberties, principles of democracy

No sooner was the Constitution accepted than both individuals and states insisted on additions to protect the people from possible abuses by the new federal government. In 1790 Congress and the states ratified ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments guarantee personal liberties and prevent the federal government from infringing on the rights of states and citizens.

For example, the First Amendment—the most far-reaching amendment in the Bill of Rights—prohibits Congress from establishing an official state religion and from preventing Americans from the free exercise of their religion. It also prohibits the government from interfering with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right “peaceably to assemble.” Other amendments in the Bill of Rights confer on the people the right to speedy trials, to be secure in their homes, and to own and carry arms. The Fifth Amendment states that people cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law”—that is, without a fair trial.

Besides the Bill of Rights, there have been only 17 other amendments to the Constitution in the more than 200 years of its existence. Of these, some of the most important are the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments, which, respectively, gave blacks, women, and 18-year-olds the right to vote. Also important are the 17th Amendment, which gave the people the right to elect United States senators, and the 22nd Amendment, which restricted the number of terms a president can serve to two. These amendments extended the principles of democracy to more Americans, and in the case of the president, limited the power of a chief executive by restricting the length of his or her tenure. Besides these amendments, the 14th Amendment is an important safeguard for minority rights because under its “due process” clause, it extends the protections of the Bill of Rights to individual residents of states. In the same way that the Bill of Rights limits federal power, the 14th Amendment limits the power of the states over their citizens.

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