Development of Rights and Protections
“It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the government of England. Sir William Meredith calls it a republic; but in its present state it is unworthy of the name, because the corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, hath so effectually swallowed up the power, and eaten out the virtue of the house of commons (the republican part in the constitution) that the government of England is nearly as monarchical as that of France or Spain.”
The rights and protections in the Constitution and Bill of Rights were not entirely original at the time they were ratified. For centuries, people in England and the colonies had been establishing rights for citizens to protect them from abusive governments. When it became clear that a bill of rights was a necessary addition to the national Constitution, there were many precedents James Madison could turn to for guidance.
Centuries before the first Englishmen arrived in what would become the United States, the Magna Carta was signed by King John of England. It guaranteed certain rights and protections to the church and barons. It is an early precursor to later documents in England and the United States that would protect individual rights against the government. Pay special attention to the preamble and sections 12, 38, and 61.
A principal success of the Glorious Revolution, the English Bill of Rights limits the powers of the monarch and guarantees certain rights to individuals. Among those rights are the right of subjects to petition the king, the right of Protestants to arm themselves for protection from religious prosecution, and a prohibition on excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments.
In the Colonies
Upon arriving in Provincetown Harbor, the men on board the Mayflower drew up and signed an agreement to form a “civil Body Politick.” The pact established a precedent of self-government and a commitment to liberty that would influence later constitutions across the colonies.
The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties influenced a number of other colonies and was one of the most significant precursors to the Bill of Rights. The document was part of a larger effort to establish a representative form of government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As part of that effort, the colonists thought it was essential to create a written list of rights. They understood the foundational nature of the undertaking, and John Winthrop explicitly compared the Body of Liberties to the Magna Carta.
Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense inspired many Americans to revolt against the British Crown. Paine describes the King’s ability to abuse his power and explains the necessity for Americans to establish a republican government to protect themselves from further injustices perpetrated by a monarch.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776, selections
The first two sentences of the Declaration of Independence are, rightfully so, the most quoted part of the document. The list of grievances against King George III, however, is equally important to consider when thinking about the development of rights protections after the Revolutionary War. Many of the colonists’ concerns listed in the Declaration are explicitly addressed in either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
During and After Ratification
The inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution was one of the most contested topics at the Convention. Some delegates thought a bill of rights was essential for ensuring individual rights were not infringed by the government. Others thought that listing specific rights would imply that those were the only rights protected by the Constitution. The Massachusetts Ratifying Convention was sharply divided over this issue and in order to ratify the Constitution, Massachusetts Federalists promised to send suggested amendments with their notice of ratification. Other states followed suit, and many suggested amendments by state ratifying conventions eventually were included in the Bill of Rights.
Ratification of the Constitution by Massachusetts, 1788
Though originally opposed to a bill of rights, James Madison became the primary advocate of a bill of rights once the Constitution had been ratified. Below are Madison’s original bill of rights, which contained 17 amendments, and the final Bill of Rights that was ratified in 1791.
Madison’s Proposed Bill of Rights, 1789
Original Senate Markup of the Bill of Rights, 1789
Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution
“Common Sense”: The Rhetoric of Popular Democracy
The Debate Over a Bill of Rights
Center for the Study of the American Constitution