The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE ENGLISH BEGINNINGS

REVOLTS HAVE distant repercussions. Ordinarily they are conceived to be efforts to effect sweeping changes in the existing social or political order. Nevertheless the American Revolution--certainly a revolt of huge significance in modern history--was promulgated as an attempt to give the people not something new, but that which they had formerly possessed. Thus the American Revolution had its seeds in the Puritan Revolt of English forebears, with the avowed goal of giving citizens the freedoms won a century earlier in the mother country.

Indeed, the Puritan Revolt furnished a philosophical basis for the American events of 1765 onward, and when the bills of rights were drafted during the American Revolution, the language and perhaps some of the spirit were borrowed from that earlier period. 1 Among their other accomplishments, the managers of the American Revolution were well-read in English constitutional history, and they therefore knew the historical background of their desired rights. When it came to the matter of personal freedom, there was general agreement as to what they wanted.

Long before the Revolution took place, however, those events were in motion which would make the bill of rights an integral part of the revolt. The English settlers on the Atlantic frontier in the seventeenth century brought with them the legal institutions of their homeland. Here they planted firmly, too, economic and religious ideas that gave them suffi-

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1
See Herbert W. Schneider, "Philosophical Differences Between the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," in Conyers Read, ed., The Constitution Reconsidered ( New York, 1938), 147, 155.

-3-

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