Constitutional Rights Foundation (2023)

In 1495, the crown ordered the money from the sale of the Indian slaves to be set aside until certain troubling questions could be answered: Did Spain have "just title" over the Indies? Could Spain legitimately make war on the native peoples and thereby enslave or otherwise force them to work? Did the Indians have the capacity to accept Christianity and to live like Spaniards? Were the Indians even human beings?

The questions dominated Spanish colonial policy and lawmaking for most of the next century. They caused a massive collection of royal decrees, ordinances, and law codes that together made up the "Laws of the Indies." Although many laws concerning the Indians proved to be humane and even enlightened, the Spaniards in the New World often ignored them in their greedy quest for gold.

God and Greed

The question of the "just title" to the Indies was seemingly settled in 1493. Pope Alexander VI issued a declaration passing legal possession of the newly discovered lands to Spain. The pope, however, made this "donation" to Spain for the purpose of converting the native peoples to a belief in God and the Catholic faith. Whether Spain could also legally take Indian lands and possessions by force became a disputed matter among Spanish scholars for many years. Of course, the Indians had no say in any of this.

Over the next decade, Ferdinand and Isabella issued royal orders to Spanish officials in Hispaniola, Spain's first colony in the New World, on how to treat the native peoples. Missionaries were to inform the natives about Christianity, and the governor of the colony was supposed "to make certain that the Indians are well treated." In return, Ferdinand and Isabella expected the Indians to pay them tribute in gold or goods. Furthermore, the Spanish monarchs directed their officials to "compel" the Indians to work for wages to prevent "idleness."

In America, events took their own course. The Spanish conquistadors, who went to Hispaniola and then to other Caribbean islands and finally to the mainland, were rough and violent. They took what they wanted, and when the Indians resisted--or even when they did not--the conquistadors attacked and slaughtered them. By 1499, Columbus was rewarding his men for helping conquer the Indies by forcing Indians to work for them. This prompted Queen Isabella to ask, "By what authority does the Admiral give my vassals [subjects] away?"

Within a few years, however, the crown authorized this practice, called the encomienda system. Instead of being a grant of land, the encomienda was a grant of people. Typically, an encomienda included an entire village, up to several hundred men, women, and children. Their Spanish masters could force them to mine gold, cultivate crops, or carry goods like beasts of burden. The masters were supposed to pay the Indians, but the law only obligated them to give Indians minimal clothing and food rations. During the first decades of the Spanish occupation of the New World, hundreds of thousands of native peoples died. Some perished from starvation, others from diseases brought from the Old World, and some were simply worked to death.

The Laws of Burgos

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In 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican missionary in Hispaniola, delivered a sermon that shocked and angered his Spanish listeners. Montesinos condemned their cruel treatment of the Indian people. "You kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day," he said. He then asked, "Are these not men? Have they not rational souls?" This marked the first open protest against the mistreatment of native peoples in America.

The year after his revolutionary sermon, Montesinos traveled to Spain to take his grievances directly to King Ferdinand. (Isabella had died in 1504). The king listened sympathetically and ordered Spanish scholars to prepare a code of laws regulating the treatment of Indians. Drawn up in 1512 and l513 in the city of Burgos, Spain, the Laws of Burgos became the first code of laws written by Europeans for the New World.

The Laws of Burgos were remarkably enlightened for the time. Although this law code continued to recognize the encomienda system, its 39 articles laid down specific rules to prevent abuse of Indian workers. For example, it forbid using Indians as carriers of goods in place of pack animals. It granted 40 days of rest to encomienda Indians who had mined gold for five months. It prohibited Indian children under 14 and pregnant women from doing heavy work in the mines or fields. It banned Spanish masters from beating, whipping, or calling any Indian "dog." Moreover, the code required that the Catholic faith "shall be planted and deeply rooted so that the souls of the said Indians may be saved."

In spite of the good intentions of Burgos code, most of its laws were not enforced. After all, Spain and King Ferdinand were a long way from America.

Defender of the Indians

In 1524, the king of Spain, now Charles V, established the Council of the Indies. This powerful body held primary authority under the king concerning the Indies. The council wrote laws, acted as a court of appeal in some cases, decided which books about the Indies could be published, approved matters relating to religion, regulated commerce, and directed the administration of colonial governments in America. The council also heard complaints about the continued mistreatment of the Indian population.

Bartolome de Las Casas was the most persistent defender of the Indians during the early years of the Spanish conquest of America. Starting out as a conquistador with his own encomienda, Las Casas later became a Dominican friar who passionately spoke out against the brutal treatment of the Indians.

In several books and in speeches before the Council of the Indies, Las Casas described in graphic detail how the Spanish moved into an unconquered territory and terrorized Indian people. In one technique, Spanish soldiers rounded up Indian leaders, hanged them in groups with their feet barely touching the ground, and then burned them alive. In another, soldiers let loose large, vicious dogs to attack, tear apart, and then eat the Indians. "Nor did this cruelty take pity on [pregnant] women," wrote Las Casas, "whose bellies they ripped up taking out the infants to hew them to pieces."

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Las Casas went on and on cataloging the tortures employed by the conquistadors--throwing Indians into pits with sharpened stakes, spearing them from horseback as they tried to escape, grilling children over a fire. The Dominican friar finally charged that after the survivors had been enslaved or forced into encomiendas, their Spanish masters started "killing them slowly with hard labor."

In 1542, due to the constant protests of Las Casas and others, the Council of the Indies wrote and King Charles V enacted the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians. The New Laws abolished Indian slavery and also ended the encomienda system. After the current encomienda masters died, their Indians would become vassals of the crown. They would then owe the king tribute in goods, but not in labor.

The new encomienda law produced tremendous opposition in America. Encomienda holders argued that not only they but the entire Spanish colonizing effort would fail without forced Indian labor. The viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) suspended enforcement of the new encomienda law because so many refused to accept it. In Peru, a violent revolt resulted in the beheading of the viceroy there.

Finally in 1545, Charles V backed down and revoked the offending law. This allowed masters to pass on their encomienda Indians to their heirs. The encomiendas thus continued for a while, but eventually disappeared as the Indian population declined sharply because of forced labor, disease, and intermarriage with Spaniards. The Laws of the Indies considered the children of these mixed marriages free and outside the encomienda system.

The Great Debate

Even though he was on the losing side in the fight to abolish encomiendas, Las Casas stubbornly pressed on with his Indian cause. Pope Paul III helped when he declared that Indians were human beings. Then in 1550 and 1551, Las Casas participated in a remarkable debate. Sponsored by the king himself, it questioned the entire Spanish colonization enterprise in the New World.

The great debate took place at Valladolid, Spain, before a special group of scholars and royal officials. They were to decide whether the conquest of the native peoples in the New World was morally justified. A brilliant religious scholar, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, argued that the Indians were barbaric and "slaves by nature." If "those little men in whom one can scarcely find any remnants of humanity" resisted Spanish rule, Sepulveda reasoned, war was justified.

Las Casas contended that the Indians were free, rational human beings whom he compared favorably to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even the Spanish themselves. "All the peoples of the world are men," he said, and thus possess basic natural rights. Therefore, it was wrong for the Spanish to force their rule and religion onto the Indians. Las Casas concluded that the conquest must stop, Spain must end its rule over native peoples, and religious conversion must take place peacefully and voluntarily.

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The panel of scholars never declared a winner in the debate, although both Sepulveda and Las Casas claimed victory. The conquest continued, but the ideas that Las Casas presented during the great debate influenced the development of the Laws of the Indies and the rights of Indian peoples over the next 300 years.

For Discussion and Writing

1. What were the "Laws of the Indies"? How effective were they?

2. What was the encomienda system? How did the conquistadors justify it? How did Las Casas and other critics condemn it?

3. How would you have decided the great debate on the conquest of the Indians? Give reasons for your decision.

For Further Reading

Gibson, Charles, ed. The Spanish Tradition in America. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.

Las Casas, Bartolome de. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. New York: Penguin Books, 1992 [originally published in 1552].

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A C T I V I T Y: Laws for the Indies

The Council of the Indies considered at one time all the proposed laws for the Indies listed below. Divide the class into the following role groups for a simulated Council of the Indies lawmaking session:

1. Conquistadors: Soldiers and encomienda masters who conquered the New World for Spain 2. Viceroys: The king's representatives in the New World. Each heads the government of a Spanish colony.

3. Missionaries: Members of religious orders who want to convert the Indians to Christianity

4. Indian Defenders: People like Las Casas who protest the mistreatment of Indians and defend their human rights

5. Council of the Indies: The lawmaking body for the Indies

The first four role groups should prepare a position with arguments on each of the proposed laws while the last group (the council) develops questions to ask. Each group will then present its position on the first proposed law before the Council of the Indies. The council may ask questions of each group after it has finished. The council will then discuss and decide whether to approve, disapprove, or modify the proposed law. The same procedure should be followed in considering the other proposed laws.

Proposed Laws

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1. Indians shall not be permitted to go without clothing, worship idols, or make human sacrifices. 2. Sons of Indian leaders will be instructed in reading, writing, and the Catholic faith at the expense of their encomienda masters.

3. The encomienda system will be phased out. When a current encomienda master dies, his Indians shall become vassals of the crown.

4. Books by Juan Gines de Sepulveda shall not be printed or distributed in the Indies.


What is the foundation of the rights in the Constitution? ›

Our Declaration of Independence acknowledges a Creator as the source of the unalienable rights that governments are formed to secure. This acknowledgement was the very foundation of the Constitution of the United States of America.

What are the constitutional rights? ›

It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. The Third Amendment prohibits the government from quartering troops in private homes, a major grievance during the American Revolution.

Why is it important to have rights outlined in the constitution? ›

And it sets out where government powers end by guaranteeing individuals' specific rights and freedoms. These rights help to assure the protection and promotion of human dignity, equality and liberty. Constitutions may provide for the division of powers between the central government and the regions.

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Who runs the Constitutional Rights Foundation? ›

Hon. Ronald George (Ret.)

Are all rights constitutional rights? ›

Additionally, not all rights protected by the U.S. Constitution are explicitly stated within. Some are implied or unenumerated, like the right to privacy. These unenumerated rights are established in case law. For example, the first instance of a constitutional right to privacy comes from the seminal case Griswold v.

What is constitutional rights in simple words? ›

Constitutional rights are granted to individuals by virtue of their citizen ship or residence in a particular country whereas human rights are inherent and held as attributes of the human personality. Human rights are both abstract and practical.

Is life a constitutional right? ›

Again, the U.S. Constitution does not grant Americans the right to life. The U.S. Constitution never even mentions the “right to life.” The word “Life” is found but only once in the U.S. Consitution.

Do constitutional rights have limits? ›

The protections of the Bill of Rights are limited in any case where using the right causes harm to another person. For example, the protections given in the First Amendment concerning freedom of expression are limited in cases where free expression violates moral values or spreads hatred or violence.

How do constitutional rights impact our society? ›

Remember, the First Amendment includes the personal freedoms that include religious exercise, peaceable (peaceful) assembly, speech, press, and petition, while the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect people accused of crimes from abuse of power by the federal government.

Can constitutional rights be taken away? ›

If a state constitutional right conflicts with a U.S. Constitutional right, the U.S. right prevails. The state constitutions can add rights, but they can't take away any U.S. Constitutional rights.

Are constitutional rights positive or negative? ›

All of the rights in the Bill of Rights are designed as limits on government. They say what government cannot do, not what it must do. Such limits are known as negative rights, versus the positive rights of requiring government to provide jobs and healthcare.

Who rejected the natural rights? ›

Presaging the shift in thinking in the 19th century, Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as "nonsense on stilts".

Is the Constitution at the archives real? ›

Located on the upper level of the National Archives museum, the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom is the permanent home of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, and Bill of Rights.

Who does the Bill of Right protect U.S. against? ›

Among the legal protections it affords, the Bill of Rights prohibits Congress from making any law respecting establishment of religion and prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

Who is the authority of the Constitution? ›

The Government and Parliament of India. The Government and State Legislature. All Local authorities. “Other authorities under Article 12” are within the territory of India or under the control of the central government.

Who regulate the right of citizenship? ›

Article 11: Parliament to regulate the right of citizenship by law. The Parliament has the right to make any provision concerning the acquisition and termination of citizenship and any other matter relating to citizenship.

What rights are not constitutional? ›

Unenumerated (unwritten) rights include the right to travel, privacy, autonomy, dignity, and the right to have an abortion. United States Supreme Court. None of these rights are stated explicitly in the constitution, but the Supreme Court defends these rights.

Are All right human rights? ›

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.

Is human rights a legal right? ›

The basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution of India, which are granted to all people, are fundamental rights. They are enforced on the grounds of ethnicity, faith, gender, etc. without prejudice. Significantly, fundamental rights are enforceable by the courts, subject to certain conditions.

What is constitution full answer? ›

A constitution is the rule book for a state. It sets out the fundamental principles by which the state is governed. It describes the main institutions of the state, and defines the relationship between these institutions (for example, between the executive, legislature and judiciary).

What are rights Short answer? ›

Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.

What is another word for Constitutional Rights? ›

  • civil rights.
  • civil liberties.
  • natural rights.
  • rights of citizenship.
  • unalienable rights.

Is freedom of choice a constitutional right? ›

The Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution guarantees individuals the right to personal autonomy, which means that a person's decisions regarding his or her personal life are none of the government's business.

Are human rights absolute? ›

Most rights, however, are not absolute in character. States can limit the exercise of these rights for valid reasons, including the needs of countering terrorism, as long as they respect a number of conditions.

Why is it important to protect human rights? ›

Human rights are needed to protect and preserve every individual's humanity, to ensure that every individual can live a life of dignity and a life that is worthy of a human being.

What are rights that Cannot be taken? ›

The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness—they “hold to be unalienable.” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure those rights, they are content that ...

What can people do if they believe the government is violating a constitutional right? ›

Right to appeal or request a new trial. When your constitutional rights are breached during the criminal justice process, and the breach contributes to a guilty conviction, you can pursue an appeal based on an error in the criminal procedure or jury misconduct, or file a motion for a new trial.

Which rights Cannot be limited? ›

Human rights are those basic and fundamental rights to which every person - for the simple reason of being human - is entitled. These rights are inalienable: a person has them forever and they cannot be taken away.

How is Constitution related to our daily life? ›

It decides how the government will be constituted. To set some limits on what a government can impose on its citizens. These limits are fundamental in the sense that government may never trespass on them. To enable the government to fulfil the aspirations of a society and create conditions for a just society.

How do rights benefit us? ›

They embody key values in our society such as fairness, dignity, equality and respect. They are an important means of protection for us all, especially those who may face abuse, neglect and isolation.

How Constitution relates to our daily life? ›

constitution matters in our daily life. This helps the govt to take the right decisions at the right time through debates discussions ironing out. Constitution guides its country essentially maps the framework for the future highlighting how the current situations needs to be modified to move forward.

What three rights Cannot be taken away? ›

That is, rights that are God-given and can never be taken or even given away. Among these fundamental natural rights, Locke said, are "life, liberty, and property."

Can you sue the federal government for violating your constitutional rights? ›

United States law allows an individual who believes that his or her constitutional rights have been violated to bring a civil action against the government to recover the damages sustained as a result of that violation.

Do you have to follow unconstitutional laws? ›

Since the United States Constitution and Minnesota Constitution are the supreme law of the state, a law that conflicts with those constitutions cannot be enforced. It is up to the courts to determine whether there is a conflict, but courts must consider many components when assessing a constitutional challenge.

What are the 10 rights of the Constitution? ›

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are summarized below.
Bill of Rights - The Really Brief Version.
1Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.
8Freedom from excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishments.
9Other rights of the people.
10Powers reserved to the states.
6 more rows

What are the 6 constitutional rights? ›

The Constitution guarantees six fundamental rights to Indian citizens as follows: (i) right to equality, (ii) right to freedom, (iii) right against exploitation, (iv) right to freedom of religion, (v) cultural and educational rights, and (vi) right to constitutional remedies.

What are the 3 constitutional rights? ›

It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual—like freedom of speech, press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States.

What are the 5 most important rights? ›

The five freedoms it protects: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. Together, these five guaranteed freedoms make the people of the United States of America the freest in the world.

What are the 4 types of rights? ›

  • RIGHTS: 4 KINDS. There are four basic kinds of right or liberty: biological, economic, cultural, and political. Each such right is the freedom to participate in (or have access. ...
  • - -
  • -- - -
  • -
  • party, to vote or be vbted for, is the same as freedom to participate in the. pol it i ca l system.

What are my rights as a citizen? ›

Right to vote in elections for public officials. Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship. Right to run for elected office. Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What are the 7 fundamental rights? ›

Fundamental Rights - Articles 12-35 (Part III of Indian...
  • Right to Equality.
  • Right to Freedom.
  • Right against Exploitation.
  • Right to Freedom of Religion.
  • Cultural and Educational Rights.
  • Right to Constitutional Remedies.

What are the 13 human rights? ›

Appendix 5: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (abbreviated)
Article 1Right to Equality
Article 11Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
Article 12Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
Article 13Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country
26 more rows

Who protect your rights? ›

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the leading United Nations entity in the field of human rights, with a unique mandate to promote and protect all human rights for all people.

What are the 14 Bill of Rights? ›

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

What three rights should every? ›

Loved by our community
  • the right to vote .
  • freedom of speech and expression.
  • freedom to worship any God and religion.

What 3 rights are most important? ›

Human rights are based on values that keep society fair, just and equal. They include the right to life, the right to health and the right to freedom from torture.

What are the five basic human rights being violated? ›

Civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights can all be violated through various means.

What are the five limitations of human rights? ›

Permissible limitations on rights
  • Freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (ICCPR Article 7)
  • Freedom from slavery and servitude (ICCPR Article 8)
  • Freedom from imprisonment for inability to fulfil a contractual obligation (ICCPR Article 11)

What are the 5 legal duties of citizens? ›

Some of these obligations include:
  • Paying of taxes. An important duty of any citizen in any country is to pay taxes to the state. ...
  • Obeying the laws of the state. Law and order is a prerequisite of every society. ...
  • Participating in the political process. ...
  • Protection of public property. ...
  • Defense of the state and crime prevention.


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