Rights

Equal Rights for All

The most basic right of citizenship has been equal access and protection under the law. The fight to extend this right to all began before the Declaration of Independence proclaimed “all men are created equal,” and continues today.

Equal rights buttons

Equal rights buttons

Gifts of Timothy D. W. Connelly in memory of Gordon Montgomery Connelly, Roger A. Fischer, Pearl B. Cole, and Shepard Center, and transfer from Library of Congress

Your Country’s Representation

One of the assumed rights of citizenship is that your government will represent you. Originally serving as a letter of introduction to foreign governments on behalf of Americans traveling abroad, the very earliest passport was designed by Benjamin Franklin during the War of Independence when he served as minister to France. While regulations have changed over the years, passports are official documents issued by the U.S. Department of State that identify the holder as a citizen.

Passport, 1869

Gift of Mrs. Harry C. Lamberton

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Passport, 1999

Passport, 1999

Gift of Sara Murphy

Freedom of Speech

San Francisco poet, artist, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was an influential figure of the 1950s Beat Generation and the social revolution of the 1960s. In 1956 he was arrested and tried on obscenity charges for publishing and selling Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. This landmark case established a key legal precedent for the publication of controversial literary pieces. His victory expanded the right to free speech and opened the way for an explosion of new works that tested the boundaries of literary expression.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s typewriter from his San Francisco bookstore

The Right to Bear Arms

The Second Amendment of the Constitution granted that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The debate over what this right actually means is highly contested.

Right to an Education

Though not guaranteed by the Constitution, Americans have largely agreed that an educated citizenry is a requirement for a healthy democracy. The more controversial question was: should it and can it be equal and open to all?

Poster produced by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1970

Poster produced by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1970

Transfer from U.S. Department of Education

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public schools segregated by race were unconstitutional, stating “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Through their decision, the Court entered into the ongoing debate of whether education should be a right of every citizen.

Printed copy of Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court opinion

Printed copy of Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court opinion

A Meaningful Job

Is freedom from want the right of all Americans? What responsibility does the nation have to provide employment to its citizens? In response to economic crisis, at times the government has enacted massive employment programs. One such program, the Works Progress Administration, employed as many as eight million people during the depression of the 1930s. Federal legislation enacted in 1964 led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the “War on Poverty.”

Protest poster from Poor People’s Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968

Gift of Mrs. Clara Watkins

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Right to Health Care

Citizens have turned to the government to advance public health, whether combating yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s or funding cancer research in the 21st century. In the 2000s the long-debated subject of national health care became a hotly contested political issue. The central question was: should all citizens have the right to medical care, and if so, how should it be made available?

Literature produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the federal Health Insurance Marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, 2013

Literature produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the federal Health Insurance Marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, 2013

Rally for health care reform, New York City, September 22, 2009

Rally for health care reform, New York City, September 22, 2009

Courtesy of Mario Tama/GettyImages