By Ellery Toman
We tend to think of the Bill of Rights as an innovation, but it builds upon a thriving tradition in English law.
The founding of the United States of America is often looked upon as a revolutionary landmark, because of its presupposition of fundamental natural rights as the basis for governmental power. In 1776, the thirteen American colonies rebelled against their mother country, Great Britain, and formed their own country. In 1787, a national convention ratified the U.S. Constitution, unifying the country under a strong central government. No other government before had striven to preserve liberty through the clear division and balance of powers, the direct representation of citizens, and the declaration of inalienable rights, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
However, despite the unique nature of the U.S. government, its founding was not a complete rejection of Great Britain’s example. Although the founding of the United States applied the principle of universal natural rights as the basis for governmental power farther than any previous government, many of its statutes build upon the ideas which had been developing in England for centuries.
One of England’s oldest constitutional documents, the Magna Carta, is a clear example of the importance of British legal tradition to the development of the Constitution of the United States. The Magna Carta, a treaty signed by King John in 1215 which curbed his power, would shape the founders’ concept of rights and order. The broad goal of the Magna Carta was to guarantee specific rights and laws for the people, with the hope of preventing the possibility of a despotic monarch or an unruly people. This concept, novel in the thirteenth century, became an example for governments like the U.S. regarding how to create a clear system of law and justice. Some of the rights in the Constitution, namely in the Bill of Rights, were inspired by ideas laid out in the Magna Carta. One example is the Magna Carta’s Article 29, which prohibited unlawful imprisonment or exile and promised free and swift justice. The Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution closely mirror this Article, naming the right to a “speedy and public trial” and preventing punishment “without due process of law.” The Magna Carta was one of the first documents to uphold the rights of the people against the king’s power, and would be an inspiration to many later democracies including the United States.
The United States of America’s founding also has deep roots in the political philosophy of 17th-century English Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As he wrote in his Two Treatises of Human Government, Locke believed that the “perfect state of nature” was one in which each man was free and could defend his “life, liberty, and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men.” It followed that a society could only rightly exist if all its members freely consented to take part and abide by the will of the majority. Additionally, Locke believed that a society should only be instituted if it would better protect each person’s liberties. Rousseau makes similar arguments in The Social Contract, also addressing the relationship between governors and the governed; he posited that each party should be committed to the other, since the state is nothing but its constituents and owes its existence to the “sanctity of the contract.” These same ideas appear in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all Men are created equal … [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that the government derives its power from the people. The U.S. founders were not original in their presupposition of natural rights; rather, they applied them more broadly than previous countries.
The English Bill of Rights is a prime example of both the British influence on the U.S. Constitution and of the ways in which the founders of the U.S. implemented democratic principles more fully than their predecessors. Written in 1689, this English Bill was a reaction to the Glorious Revolution and the overthrow of King James II. Its writers attempted to uphold the rights of Parliament and the Protestant population against the overwhelming power of the monarchy. It prohibited the king from taking such actions as suspending laws, erecting courts, and levying money without the consent of Parliament. The concept of partitioning power from the king went against the absolutist tendencies of that time and was echoed later by the separation of the U.S. government into three distinct branches, although the U.S. took the concept much farther than England. One of these prohibitions from the English Bill was almost directly copied into the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution reads “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” which is nearly the same as the English Bill of Rights. The bill also gave Protestants the right to “arms for the defense suitable to their conditions,” which was a direct influence on the Constitution’s Second Amendment, declaring that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The English Bill of Rights’ influence is again clear where it forbade the questioning of the freedom of speech and debates in Parliament. Similarly, the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits Congress from making a law abridging the freedom of religion, speech, or peaceable assembly. However, in both of the two previous examples, the English Bill gave rights only to specific groups (Protestants in the first and Parliament in the second), whereas the U.S. Constitution forbids the suppression of rights for all of its citizens. The American Constitution and amendments took direct inspiration from the English Bill of Rights in many places, but extended the concepts universally rather than conditionally.
The prevailing repetition of English ideas and concepts throughout the United States’ founding documents show that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were not unprecedented; the Founding Fathers were well acquainted with English constitutional tradition and philosophical thought, and made use of their rich heritage. The true phenomenon of the founding of the U.S. is the integrity with which it fully applied the self-evident truths of natural equality and rights. Americans can be proud of the freedom which the Constitution attempts to secure while also giving thanks to Britain for providing the remarkable people and ideas without which their country would not exist.
Ellery Toman is a 16 year old homeschooled junior from Lawton, MI. She is thankful to her parents for the love of education they have given her, and has particular interest in biology, piano, and history; she also enjoys exercise, musical theater, spending time with her siblings, crafting, and being in God’s beautiful creation. Her plans after high school are not yet certain, but she is interested in attending college to pursue music, nursing, or history.
Every time we administer the CLT, the forty highest-scoring students are invited to make a contribution to the CLT Journal. Thank you and congratulations, Miss Toman! To see more from our top students, check out these essays on sibling dynamics in Pride and Prejudice and the philosophical importance of epistemology, or this student poem on the beginning of World War One.