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Citizenship » Rights of U.S. Citizens

Citizenship Rights

Being or becoming a citizen of a country entitles a person to all of the rights and privileges of the laws and government of that country. All citizens of the United States enjoy the basic freedoms and protections outlined in its founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, which set forth the principles and ideas of a just and fair government, and the Constitution, which outlined how this government would function.

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The United States Constitution
Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

"Our Constitution is founded on the principle that all men are equal as citizens and entitled to the same rights, whether they achieved citizenship by birth, or after coming here as immigrants."

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John F. Kennedy

35th U.S. President

The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The body of the original Constitution outlined the form and structure of the U.S. government by defining the three separate branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) to provide checks and balances and prevent any one branch of government to assume too much power. The framers of the Constitution also held to the principle of individual rights and wanted to protect citizens against abuse by the government and to guarantee the “inalienable (or natural) rights” of the citizens as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1787 many people were concerned that it did not address individual rights and thought that the Constitution should be amended to protect these rights. In their formal ratification of the Constitution, several state conventions asked for such amendments, and others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered. On December 15, 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. These first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, enumerated certain freedoms and rights not explicitly indicated in the main body of the Constitution:

First Amendment - protects the citizens’ freedom to practice the religion of their choice or not practice any religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to peaceably assemble and address the government.

Second Amendment - protects the citizens’ right to own and carry guns.

Third Amendment - protects citizens from being forced to feed and house the armed forces, both in peaceful times or in time of war.

Fourth Amendment - protects citizens against unlawful or unwarranted search and seizure of their persons or their property.

Fifth Amendment - gives citizens the right to have due process under the law, protects them against “double jeopardy” (being tried twice for the same crime), protects them against self-incrimination and assures that citizens’ property cannot be taken without just compensation.

Sixth Amendment - protects the accused in criminal prosecutions by guaranteeing a speedy public trial by an impartial jury, the ability for defendants to confront the witnesses testifying against them and to obtain witnesses in their favor, and the right to legal counsel.

Seventh Amendment - guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial in federal civil cases.

Eighth Amendment - protects citizens against excessive bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishment for crimes.

Ninth Amendment - reserves for citizens any rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but those rights still cannot be violated.

Tenth Amendment - reserves all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government by the Constitution to the states and their citizens.

The protections afforded by the Bill of Rights only included white men, and it took another four amendments to the Constitution and 129 years for full citizenship and the right to vote to be granted to women and racial minorities.

The Constitution and laws of the United States give many rights to both citizens and noncitizens. However, there are certain rights that are only granted to U.S. citizens, including the right to vote, to apply for federal employment, to run for elected office, to obtain a U.S. passport and to not be denied re-entry into this country. As a society based on individual freedom, all Americans have the inherent right to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as long as such pursuit does not interfere with the rights of others.

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The Bill of Rights ratified in 1791
Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

"I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."

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Thomas Jefferson

3rd U.S. President
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