The phrase “civil liberties” refers to the personal freedoms that are guaranteed against government infringement. “Civil rights” refers to the rights of minority groups whose protection is understood to require positive government action.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” So begins the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights
Contemporary magazine illustration of people celebrating the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 outside the gallery of the House of Representatives.
The person who gave us the Bill of Rights had warned us that the principal source of mischief against personal liberties would be the states and their local communities, and not the national majority. If James Madison
Eventually, the nation came around to embracing Madison’s vision, though more out of desperation in the wake of the Civil War than as a concession to his argument. Not only did the Fourteenth Amendment define U.S. citizenship, with a view to protecting the rights of individuals from abuse by local majorities, it also contained this critical language, which would have pleased the Father of the Bill of Rights: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge . . .” Nevertheless, the actual use of the Bill of Rights against state and local abuses was not to materialize until 1925, when, in Gitlow v. New York, the Supreme Court began to read, in earnest, certain provisions of that document into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in a series of actions which would come to be known as “selective incorporation.”
The Fourteenth Amendment
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (second from right) at the swearing-in ceremony of the President's Commission on Civil Rights, which was authorized by the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Congress responded to this challenge with a series of legislative enactments, all under the fitting name of “Civil Rights Act,”
Congress did not enact another civil rights law until 1957. The 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts made the Justice Department the command post in the war on racial discrimination. Then came the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, by far the most comprehensive civil rights law in the nation’s history. Although it was intended on the whole as an enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection mandate, its sweeping public accommodations provisions in Title II had to be given some other justification so as not to repeat the mistake of 1875. Congress this time decided to rely on the commerce clause, and later that year, in two separate cases, Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was handily upheld by the Supreme Court as an exercise of Congress’s commerce power. With that ruling, the Supreme Court left the 1883 precedent undisturbed, merely noting that it was not “apposite” here. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was followed a year later by another monumental statute, the Voting Rights Act, whose contested provisions, dealing with literacy devices and federal examiners, were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1966, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, as a “valid” exercise of the federal government’s power under the Fifteenth Amendment.
Curtis, Michael Kent. No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Hall, Kermit L., et al. American Legal History: Cases and Materials. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Karst, Kenneth. Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. Veit, Helen E., et al., eds. Creating the Bill of Rights: The Documentary Record from the First Federal Congress. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Civil rights and liberties
Civil Rights movement
Commerce, regulation of
Contract, freedom of
Equal protection clause
Race and discrimination