If you are a citizen of a country, you belong to that country, and it belongs to you.
Most people in the United States became citizens at birth, either because they were born in the United States or one of its territories, or because one or both parents were American citizens. Many others became citizens through immigration and naturalization; they chose to move to the United States and go through a lengthy process in order to become naturalized Americans.
Some of the responsibilities of citizenship are obvious. For example, citizens are required to obey the laws created by Congress and by their state and local governments. In the United States, citizens take part in the democratic process by voting. Unlike countries such as Australia, the United States does not have mandatory voting; each citizen makes an independent decision about how and whether to vote. Citizens also pay taxes. Workers pay taxes on their income, and consumers pay sales tax on their purchases.
Other duties are less well known. Elected officials and military service members swear an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution, but this responsibility also belongs to every citizen. The country can require its citizens to defend it in a time of war, or to do other essential work to protect the nation. One such task is serving on a jury, a service most adults are called upon to do at least once in their lives.
Just as citizens protect the Constitution, it and the laws based on it protect the citizens’ rights. The Bill of Rights, the list of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, identifies some of the rights the founders thought were most important, such as free expression and the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice. The 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments protect voting rights. These amendments were added over the years as the right to vote was extended to more citizens. At present, almost all citizens age 18 or over have the right to vote. An individual can lose this right by being convicted of a serious crime.
Not all rights appear in the Constitution. The Ninth and 10th Amendments make clear that additional rights and powers exist beyond those that are specifically mentioned in the document. For example, a tenant who rents an apartment has the right of “quiet enjoyment” of that property. The tenant can do anything he or she wants that does not break the law or damage the property. The landlord who owns the property cannot tell the tenant how to behave, and cannot walk into the apartment without notice.
A right not spelled out in the Constitution, but protected by law, is the right of equal opportunity. A body of law says people cannot be discriminated against because of their race, sex, religion, or disability. For example, it is illegal to refuse to hire someone because they use a wheelchair for mobility. The Americans with Disabilities Act also requires public buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities; they have an equal right to be present in places that belong to all citizens.