Civil rights are those personal and property rights recognized by governments and guaranteed by constitutions and laws. Although these rights were once conceived of as civil liberties, as limits placed on the government on behalf of individual liberty, government is no longer the sole concern of civil rights policy.
Recent legislation and court decisions have extended the zone of civil rights to include protection from arbitrary or discriminatory treatment by groups or individuals. Thus, in the broad sense, civil rights include both rights against government and rights against individuals and groups.
Rights are difficult to define. The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution states certain basic rights, but ambiguity shrouds the meaning of almost every important phrase. In practice, rights are what courts, legislators, presidents, and governors say they are.
The meaning of civil rights has changed greatly over the years. The original concept was rooted in 18th-century politics and philosophy.
The decay of absolute monarchy led to efforts to check and limit royal power. In England the political philosopher John Locke gave shape to the new concept of individual natural rights against the state. Locke also believed that natural rights should be guaranteed against incursions by other persons as well as by the state.
In France, at the beginning of the French Revolution, the new Constituent Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It stated that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights" and that the "aim of all political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptibly rights of man," including "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." Much of the Declaration was derived from the writings of Diderot, Lafayette, Mira beau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire.
In America, Thomas Jefferson expanded the English and American...