The rights and responsibilities of US citizens


The United States constitution guarantees a set of rights enjoyed by all US citizens. In addition, the constitution outlines key responsibilities that are borne by all American citizens. It is worth noting that most rights as enshrined in the US constitution are contained in the bill of rights. Throughout the history of the US, the rights and responsibilities of US citizens have helped define what the country is today. The initial rights as conceived by the drafters of the constitution over 200 years ago have seen the addition of amendments under taken by the US congress and the US supreme court over the years. Key amendments include the first, the second, the fifth, as well as the fourteenth amendments. Spiro, contends that citizens, as well as permanent residents of the United States enjoy civil rights on a near equal basis (900). However, few significant rights such as those related to voting are contingent upon citizenship status. Ultimately, the majority of rights and responsibilities enshrined in the US constitution allows citizens to retain their sovereignty and national pride.

The Rights of US Citizens

As initially ratified in 1787, the United States constitution predominantly outlined government structure, in addition to limited individual liberties (Know Your Rights 1). Later on, individual states sought the inclusion of key rights prior to them ratifying the constitution (Know Your Rights 1). As a consequence, a host of amendments which addressed the rights of US citizens were introduced. A key right guaranteed by the US constitution is the freedom of worship outlined in the 1st amendment. This amendment remains pivotal to defending the freedom of worship in two fundamental ways. First, the implementation of the 1st amendment prohibited the US Congress from nationalizing a single religion (Know Your Rights 1). Second, the amendment bars congress from enacting any piece of legislation that curtails the ability of US citizens to exercise their right of worship (Know Your Rights 1). The 1st amendment is important since is allows for the separation of the state and the church. In essence, this separation of entities ensures that state affairs are free of interference from religious entities and religion is free of political interference and corruption. It is worth noting that the enactment of the 1st amendment was informed by lessons from Europe where every country at the time had a national church and individuals who failed to join were banished, murdered, jailed or tortured (Know Your Rights 1).

Throughout the history of the United States, the freedom of worship as embodied by the 1st amendment has been the subject of protracted contestations. Soon after the enactment of the amendment, citizens undertook religious tests on individuals who sought public office and often castigated non-Protestants in the process (Know Your Rights 1). At the federal level, the Constitution outlawed such religious tests but at the state levels the tests remained rampant in a majority of states (Know Your Rights 1). In 1961, however, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment of religious tests for public office seekers in the state of Maryland was unconstitutional (Know Your Rights 1). Based on the postulations of the US Supreme court, the government cannot interfere with the freedom of religious choice, save for extenuating circumstances (Know Your Rights 1). Notably, religious conducts, as opposed to religious belief must be subject to government scrutiny on occasion (Know Your Rights 1).

Another key right espoused by the 1st amendment is the freedom of speech and press. This right as set out in the amendment restricts the government’s capacity to abridge on the speech freedoms of US citizens (Ruane 1). Nonetheless, prohibition on the curtailment of this freedom is not blanket. The US Supreme Court prohibits some form of speech outright (Ruane 1). These are forms of speech which are not protected by the 1st amendment and may include true threats, obscenity, as well as child pornography (Ruane 1). In 2010, the US Supreme court clarified that the likelihood of expanding the unprotected forms of speech was somewhat limited (Ruane 1). Speech and press freedoms guaranteed under the 1st amendment are important due to various reasons. First, it allows citizens to bring about social change in a peaceful manner by giving them the capacity to alter public perceptions through persuasion, as opposed to violence (Know Your Rights 4). Second, the freedom ensures that individuals can voice their concerns in the public domain without fretting about possible retaliation from the government or other powerful entities (Know Your Rights 4). Third, it enhances individual knowledge by facilitating the discussion of divergent viewpoints freely (Know Your Rights 4). Four, it promotes human dignity, as well as individual growth by enabling citizens to share their ideas concerning politics, in addition to morality (Know Your Rights 4). Lastly, the freedom ensures that the government of the day is representative by giving policy makers access to divergent viewpoints, as well as information during the policy making process (Know Your Rights 4).

Another important right embodied in the 1st amendment is the freedom to petition and assemble. The freedom holds that US citizens have the right to assembly, in addition to the right of citizens to petition the state and air their grievances. This freedom was occasioned by the refusal of certain European governments to attend to the grievances of their citizens concerning arbitrary taxation, as well as the imposition of unfair trials (Know Your Rights 6). This particular freedom in important due to various reasons. First, it allows citizens of the United States to picket, publish articles, mail letters and sign petitions in a bid to communicate to local, federal and state governments (Know Your Rights 6). Second, it gives US citizens the capacity to petition the arms of government, namely, the judiciary, the executive and the legislature (Know Your Rights 6). Third, the freedom enables US citizens to engage and hold elected officials accountable (Know Your Rights 6). It is worth noting that this freedom remains one of most the fundamental freedoms in US history. This is primarily because it provisioned for boycotts, peaceful protests, in addition to sit-ins during the agitation for civil in the US (Know Your Rights 6). The freedom to peacefully assemble enables citizens to join social clubs, political outfits, in addition to labor unions (Know Your Rights 6). The 1st amendment is not explicit in setting out its requirement that the US government ought to respond to the petitions of citizens (Know Your Rights 6). Nonetheless, the US Supreme Court could help clarify whether the government has a mandatory obligation to respond to all petitions presented by US citizens (Know Your Rights 6).

The right to bear arms is another key right contained in the 2nd amendment of the United States constitution. The 2nd amendment essentially prohibits the US congress or other government bodies from infringing upon the right to establish a well-regulated militia, as well as the right to bear arms (Miller 74). A key aim to for the establishment of a well-regulated militia is the security and harmony of the free state (Miller 74). Over the years, US courts have helped clarify and explain the legal bounds of the 2nd amendment. Courts have in the past explained that amendment allows law-abiding citizens above the age of 21 years to own a firearm in their residences for the purpose of self-defense. For over a century, the language employed 2nd amendment has been the subject of debate between the gun rights advocates and opponents. As a consequence, the opposing sides divided the gun rights espoused in the amendment into two theories, state and individual rights. With respect to state rights, proponents of gun control contend that one section of the 1st amendment that calls for the establishment of a well-regulated militia clearly demonstrates that the intentions of the drafter was to enable individual states within the US to have armed citizens for the purpose of state security (Know Your Rights 7). They also contend that since the ratification of the amendment, a well-regulated citizens’ militia was effectively replaced by the US National Guard thus rendering the 2nd amendment obsolete (Know Your Rights 7). Gun rights’ proponents, on the other hand, argue that one section of the 2nd amendment constitutes an inferior clause and the other section that stipulates the unassailable right to possess firearms is the primary clause that gives the entire amendment meaning (Know Your Rights 7). Gun rights proponents also put forth the contention gun rights serve to buttress the right to life since they offer the capacity for self-defense (Know Your Rights 7).

Voting rights also constitute key rights held by US citizens that cannot be abridged by any single entity within the United States. Achievements linked to universal suffrage, as well as democracy for white male in the United States are associated with Andrew’s Jackson’s presidency (Ratcliffe 219). The attainments of voting rights in America was gradual and discriminatory at different points in the country’s 200-year history. Initially, voting was a preserve of property owning white males and various groups including women, the indigent, immigrants, African Americans, as well as Native Americans did not possess voting rights (Know Your Rights 23). The 15th amendment, ratified soon after the end of the American civil war extended voting rights to African American males (Know Your Rights 23). Even then, there existed various hindrances that affected the ability of African American males to exercise their voting rights in earnest over the next 100 years since the amendment’s ratification. One such hindrance included laws that necessitated African American male voters to pass a raft of literary tests before they could be allowed to cast their ballot (Know Your Rights 23). Another significant obstacle included laws that imposed poll taxes on black male voters (Know Your Rights 23). In the 1960s, the success of movements agitating for civil rights gave African Americans the ability to fully exercise constitutionally enshrined voting rights in America (Know Your Rights 23). Women attained voting rights in 1920 when the US congress ratified the 19th amendment of the US constitution. Notably, the amendment’s ratification was occasioned by pressure from movements that pushed for women’s suffrage (Know Your Rights 23). The 26th amendment, ratified in 1971, gave voting rights to US citizens aged 18 years and older (Know Your Rights 23). Before the amendment’s ratification numerous man drafted into the US military over the course of the war in Vietnam did not possess voting rights (Know Your Rights 23). Today, American citizens enjoy a raft of rights some of which include the right to seek elective positions from the electorate, in addition to the right to an impartial and prompt trial by a US jury.

Responsibilities of US Citizens

Currently, there exist a vast array of responsibilities bestowed upon all American citizens. One such responsibility is the obligation to pay taxes to the government. Spiro, observes that obligations borne by US citizens are contingent upon their territorial presence (914). It is worth noting that US non-citizens who reside within the country’s territory, irrespective of their status have a solemn responsibility to meet income taxes under US law (Spiro 914). In addition, non-citizens who stay in the US for over 183 days have a responsibility to submit tax returns (Spiro 914). This key obligation is consistent with the responsibility bestowed upon US citizens to submit tax returns on a yearly basis. Non-citizens who reside in US territory with the exception of diplomats also have the responsibility to pay taxes related to sales, as well as social security (Spiro 914). In addition, non-citizens have a higher tax obligation, as compared to US citizens when it comes to estate taxes (Spiro 914).

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US citizens also bear several key responsibilities related to the welfare of the state. First, they have the responsibility to offer defense to and support the constitution. This key responsibility constitutes a key part of the oath taken by individuals who occupy public offices in the United States, as well as those drafted into the county’s military. Second, they have the responsibility to participate in democratic processes. This responsibility ordinarily coincides with the voting rights of US citizens and their ability to vote ensures that they uphold this vital obligation. Third, they have the responsibility to respect and conform to local, federal and state laws. Four, US citizens bear the responsibility to respect the opinions, rights and beliefs of other people. Lastly, they have a responsibility to participate in local community activities. Additional responsibilities borne by US citizens include the responsibility to serve in a jury in the event that they are called upon, as well as the responsibility to offer defense to the nation if need be.

To conclude, it is clear that US citizens enjoy a raft of rights that serve to make the country better and bear several key responsibilities that allow them to fulfil their duty as citizens. Notably, key rights enshrined in the US constitution were not present during the initial drafting of the document. The incorporation of fundamental rights enjoyed by American today transpired through the ratification of a raft of amendments over the years. One such amendment is the first amendment that sets out a host of individual freedoms. Americans also bear several key responsibilities such as the responsibility to respect and conform to local, federal and state laws.

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  1. “Know Your Rights: A guide to the United States Constitution.” U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Minnesota, 16 Sep 2011. Web. 18 Nov 2017.
  2. Miller, Darrell A. H. P. Institutions and the Second Amendment. Duke Law Journal 66.69 (2016): 69-119.
  3. Ratcliffe, Donald. “The right to vote and the rise of democracy, 1787-1828.” Journal of the Early Republic 33.2 (2013): 219-254.
  4. Ruane, Kathleen Ann. “Freedom of speech and press: Exceptions to the First Amendment.” https://www. fas. org/sgp/crs/misc/95-815. pdf. U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Minnesota, 2014. Web. 18 Nov 2017.
  5. Spiro, Peter J. “The (Dwindling) Rights and Obligations of Citizenship.” Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 21 (2012): 899.
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