In 1637, a stubborn English bookseller named John Lilburne stood trial before the Star Chamber, charged with having brought certain anti-religious books into Britain. Because he refused to testify against himself, he was sentenced to be whipped.
In 1641, the House of Commons voted this sentence "illegal and against the liberty of the subject." Lilburne's fight established in the English-speaking world the principle that no man should be compelled to bear witness against himself, or be tortured into confession. This safeguard was later written into the American Bill of Rights as the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The fifth amendment states in pretty plain language that in a criminal trial no man is required to testify against himself. It also includes the provision that "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law"--that is, without a fair trial. These principles go hand in hand with the assumption that a man is innocent until proved guilty. They are spelled out not only in the Bill of Rights, but also in 46 state constitutions.
Communists and fellow-travellers have, of course, made frequent use of the fifth amendment. Newspapers headline cases of "Fifth Amendment Communists," "Fifth Amendment Teachers," "Fifth Amendment Gangsters" and "Fifth Amendment Racketeers." As a result, many people forget that the fifth amendment was put in the Bill of Rights not as an "escape hatch" for the guilty, but to protect the innocent.
The fifth amendment has been called "one of the greatest privileges a free people can possess." Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, it is a symbol of democracy. There were no such safeguards in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. There is no fifth amendment in Communist Russia.