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Pleading the Fifth (Civics Primer Part 4)


My Civics Primer has been focusing on the Bill of Rights and continues with two more Amendments that deal with the rights of the accused –including perhaps the most famous of all, the Fifth Amendment.

But first, the pop quiz portion of the class continues. These five questions are  drawn from the Naturalization Test given to applicants for U.S. Citizenship. Surely any native American citizen can get all of them right. Surely.

1. How many Amendments does the Constitution have?

2. What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

3.  Name three of the original thirteen states.

4. What territory did the United States buy in 1803? (And who sold it?)

5. Who was President during World War I?

In the previous post, I highlighted the Fourth Amendment. That is the first of four of the articles in the Bill of Rights that deal with the rights of the accused. The Framers were men who had lived under a monarch with nearly unlimited powers. It is no accident that four of the ten Amendments in the Bill of Rights were clearly designed to protect the innocent and curb the power of the government in accusing and trying the people.

Amendment Five

Guarantees provisions for prosecution and due process of law. Double jeopardy restriction. Protects against self-incrimination. Safeguards due process. Private property not to be taken without compensation.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself; nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

“Pleading the Fifth” has acquired the connotation of “He must be hiding something” for many people. If you have nothing to hide, they reason, you would tell the truth. But the idea behind protection from self-incrimination is part of a tradition of reasoning that begins with the presumption of innocence and was designed to check the power of the government. Written by men who knew the unlimited power of a monarch or church to compel evidence, the Bill of Rights placed the interest of the individual above that of the state. Under this amendment, the Constitution requires the state to establish guilt by independent evidence, protecting everyone from a potentially abusive government.

Amendment Six

Guarantees the right to a speedy trial, witnesses, counsel.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining Witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

This amendment also protects the individual’s rights in criminal proceedings. Having seen people taken to jail under a monarchy, never to be seen again, the authors of the Bill of Rights wrote specific protections against that possibility. Speedy trials, public trials instead of secret inquisitions, jury trials in the district where the crime is committed, the right to confront accusers, and the guarantee of legal representation are all bedrock rights in the American system of justice.


1. 27

2. Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of happiness.

3. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.

4. Louisiana Territory (from France)

5. Woodrow Wilson

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