The Declaration of Independence states that all individuals have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When the United States Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, it further established those rights for Americans. Anyone born or living in the United States would have the right to speak or write freely on any topic, the right to choose any religion, the right to assemble peacefully for any purpose, and the right to a trial by jury. More that two centuries later, the Constitution still guarantees those rights.
The Constitution was hardly a perfect reflection of true civil liberties; it would be nearly a hundred years before slaves were freed and more than fifty years after that before women could vote in national elections. What has made the Constitution work is its ability to accommodate social justice and the fact that there have always been people willing to fight for civil liberties.
There have been times when people questioned whether Americans needed as many civil liberties as they have. In times of war, for example, debates over whether certain liberties must be curtailed always take place. During World War II, the federal government placed 110,000 Japanese Americans, two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, in internment camps. The measure was deemed necessary on account of the possible danger of espionage and infiltration of enemy forces. In hindsight, the government realized that this was an egregiously mistaken action (many Japanese American’ in fact, had served bravely during the war in the U.S. armed forces), and Congress issued an official apology in 1993. After the war ended, fear of Communism caused state and federal governments to pass legislation requiring certain government employees to take “loyalty oaths” assuring that they were not Communists or members of like-minded groups. The issue reached the boiling point when Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that there were Communists working in the federal government. McCarthy launched a series of Senate hearings, and people who were accused of being Communists often lost their jobs. The Communist scare burned itself out, but not before destroying many lives.
Those who feel that civil liberties can be curtailed under special circumstances will explain that special circumstances call for special measures. Civil libertarians will remind them that there is always a danger that once the special circumstances end, there is no guarantee that the self-imposed restrictions will also end.
Many people mistakenly believe that civil libertarianism is the same as political liberalism. Civil libertar-ians can be liberal, conservative, or anywhere within the political spectrum. Gun control is a good example. Most people do not think of groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a politically liberal entity. Yet the NRA, which was founded in 1871, has long been a vocal supporter of the Second Amendment, which gives citizens the right to keep firearms. The NRA’s commitment to civil liberties, as it sees them in this regard, is hardly in question even by its opponents.