On February 13, 1689, Parliament in London allows two new monarchs to take the throne if they honor the rights of English citizens. What became known as the English Bill of Rights was an important influence on the later American Constitution.
The statement presented that day was called the Declaration of Right, and it was intended for William of Orange, the Dutch ruler, and his wife, Mary. Parliament asked William (whose mother was the daughter of the late English King Charles I) to assume the throne along with Mary, the Protestant daughter of the deposed English King James II, as long as they agreed to the terms in that document – which they did.
In its statutory form, what became known as the English Bill of Rights contains several passages that were later reflected in the United States Constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787.
The English Bill of Rights reaffirmed some rights guaranteed to subjects that dated back to the Magna Carta but had been abridged during later conflicts in Great Britain. The English Bill of Rights listed grievances against the former Catholic ruler, James II, including a prohibition on Protestants possessing arms; the Bill allowed them to “have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”
The Bill also stated that Parliament as the representatives of British subjects shouldn’t be censored by a King or Queen, providing “that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
The declaration also included an important statement that later became part of the American Constitution’s First Amendment, for citizens to petition a government: “That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.”
The English Bill of Rights insisted that “excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” – two important concepts in our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
It objected to the quartering of troops contrary to law (matching the Constitution’s Third Amendment) and reaffirmed the right to a jury trial. The English Bill of Rights also stated that Parliament should meet regularly, be subject to free elections, and could block the suspension of laws by the crown.
And the English Bill of Rights reiterated a core concept that the crown couldn’t tax subjects without the consent of their representatives: “That levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretense of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal.”
These rights guaranteed to British subjects would later become part of the disputes between a future monarch and American colonists that led to the Revolutionary War and American independence.
WHAT IT DOES
The 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights guarantee essential rights and civil liberties:
— The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition.
— The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.
— The Third Amendment prohibits the forced quartering of soldiers.
— The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.
— The Fifth Amendment prohibits people from being subjected to double jeopardy or being forced to testify against themselves; ensures that “life, liberty, or property” may only be taken through due process of law; and private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
— The Sixth Amendment protects the right to a fair trial by jury.
— The Seventh Amendment protects the right to a jury trial in civil cases.
— The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.
— The Ninth Amendment emphasizes that certain rights being listed in the Constitution does not mean those are the only rights that belong to the people.
— The 10th Amendment states that any powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people.
WHY IT WAS ADDED
One key debate surrounding the creation of the U.S. Constitution was the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. Several delegates at the Constitutional Convention were concerned that without a Bill of Rights, our most important rights would be unprotected. Others felt that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary and that outlining certain rights would imply that those were the only rights reserved to the people. By the end of the convention, a Bill of Rights was overruled.
The Constitution, sans Bill of Rights, was signed by 39 delegates on September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Three other delegates were present but refused to sign–in part because of the absence of a Bill of Rights: Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia.
After the convention, the absence of a Bill of Rights emerged as a central part of the ratification debates. Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification, pointed to the missing Bill of Rights as a fatal flaw. Several states ratified the Constitution on the condition that a Bill of Rights be promptly added, and many even offered suggestions for what to include.
Amendment ICongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Over the course of the convention, Gouverneur Morris has lost every single debate, discussion, argument, and point. It would be hard to find any single man who had a less successful direct influence on the direction of the debates. Everything that he wanted or stood for in the new government had been defeated.
Now, as the work draws to its close, the convention turns to the one man in whom they have the utmost confidence to stitch together the final document.
And that man is Gouverneur Morris.
When all is said and done, it is Ben Franklin who rises to the moment. His words of self-sacrifice and putting the nation ahead of oneself ring in our hearts even today. And most of all, let us astonish our enemies.