From the Old World to the New
Magna Carta and the Rule of Law • The Common Law
Enthroned • Organizing for Settlement • The Merchant
Colonies: Virginia and Massachusetts • The Compact
Colonies • The Proprietary Colonies • Growth of Legislative
Dominance • The English Revolutions and the Dominion of
New England • For Further Reading
THE ENGLISH SETTLERS who came to Virginia and Massachusetts early in the seventeenth century—and others who followed to populate the Eastern seaboard of North America—brought with them a rich legal and constitutional heritage. Although conditions in the New World eventually transformed English law into new forms, basic principles remained intact. When the colonists declared their independence from the mother country, in 1776, they claimed to do so as Englishmen, asserting rights that they said belonged to all Englishmen. To understand the bases of the American constitutional and legal system, we must therefore begin with a brief look at the English legal traditions and philosophy on the eve of colonization.
“The British Constitution,” Prime Minister William Gladstone once said, “is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from progressive history.” There is, in fact, no British Constitution in the sense of a single document enunciating the fundamental law of the land. Rather, it is a complex tapestry of acts, charters, pronouncements, and judicial decisions. Many people start with Magna Carta (the “Great Charter”) that King John I (1199–1216), also known as John Lackland, reluctantly signed at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Most importantly, Magna Carta embodied the principle that no person, not even the king, is above the law. The Magna Carta, however, only continued promises made in Henry I's Coronation Charter in the twelfth century, in which the king promised not to abuse his powers and assured his barons that their privileges would be safe.