The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
MR. MASON'S PROPOSAL

BY THE END of the seventeenth century the colonial phase of charter making was almost completed. The next six decades were crowded with an extension of settlement, increased commercial activity, and the other activities associated with the growth of a healthy and vigorous people. Abstract political theory played only a minor role in the lives of the colonists as they awakened to the economic potentialities of the new world. Political theories are seldom born in tranquil periods.

A crisis in relations with England after 1760 broke the calm which had marked the early period of colonial development. Aroused by passage of the Revenue Act of 1764, the colonists found able spokesmen who made a plea for the rights of Englishmen--especially of transplanted Englishmen. James Otis had entered the list of pamphleteers two years earlier with his defense of the Massachusetts legislature against an arbitrary governor. Now Otis became foremost among those who attacked British taxation policies. Quoting Locke, Coke, Rousseau, and the English Bill of Rights (and other sources), Otis used The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved to make claim for the natural liberties of Englishmen.1 After 1765 and passage of the Stamp Act the colonists sought a defense for their conduct by claiming the rights which they had long enjoyed under their charters and codes. Thus a unity of thought unobtainable a decade earlier appeared throughout the colonies, although it must fairly be said that the economic

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1
Benjamin F. Wright, American Interpretations of Natural Law ( Cambridge, 1931), 64-71.

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