For today’s installment of my occasional series on the amendments to the United States Constitution I’ll be looking at number 5:
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 offense 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.
As opposed to the ones we have looked at so far, there seems to be a lot more going on here. This said, the main focus on the Fifth Amendment seems to be on the rights and privileges of the criminally accused within the American legal system.
The amendment limits the role of the government in running roughshod over those charged with crimes, and in so doing echoes the restraints (explicit or implicit) placed upon organized national power by the previous four. For me, this is the interesting thing about looking at these basic freedoms. All of my life I’ve never really thought of “the government” as the enemy, or something from which I need to be protected. I grew up simply assuming that the government’s job was to protect me. I still think that’s partly true, but perhaps only because the government (in the form of the Bill of Rights) took steps to protect its citizens against the possible excesses of its own being.
Early citizens of the United States knew the grievances they had against the British authority. While they wanted a government of their own, they were afraid of national power that went too far. Hence these amendments.
When we today hear people tell us that “the government is the enemy” or “the less government the better,” we sometimes think they might be a little overdramatic. Perhaps they are…but when looking at the first five amendments to the Constitution, it appears they are in good company. Interesting, that.