The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
COLONIAL ACHIEVEMENT

THE ENGLISH settlers who came to the North Atlantic frontier early in the seventeenth century were not blind to the necessity of enacting laws which would afford them the same protection of life, liberty, and property in their new homes that they had enjoyed in their old. It would be a grave mistake to interpret the early actions of the English colonists as an attempt at something new--an innovation in legal safeguards for personal liberty. They too gloried in the English Constitution, but they also shared with their brethren at home an uncertainty as to precisely what the Constitution embraced. This was the age of Francis Bacon. They must have agreed with Sir Francis in his sentiment: "That law may be set down as good which is certain in meaning, just in precept, convenient in execution, agreeable to the form of government, and productive of virtue in those that live under it."1 To assure certainty of meaning they chose to write down their laws from the earliest times. Once this practice was engrained, the Americans continued to insist on written laws, leaving nothing to uncertainty when other means were at hand.

In their search for a workable method of transferring the laws and liberties of the old realm, the various colonies tended to follow a pattern. The work of one colonial legislature was often imitated by another, partly because both had access to the common law and also because similar circumstances made the borrowing of ideas and laws inevitable. Certainly one result of the practice of adopting a neighbor's code of laws was

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1
On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning, bk. VIII, ch. 3, Aphorism vii.

-13-

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