Differentiating of the Concepts of Rights in the English Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence

The following post was originally submitted as an assignment for a government class at Regent University. It has been modified for publication.

When in the course of academic events it becomes necessary for one to analyze the dissolution of political bonds that had joined one people to another for nearly two centuries, a decent respect to the opinions of each side requires that a fundamental understanding of the reigning philosophies be at the center of that analysis. Those two reigning philosophies regarded rights of citizens in civil society. On one hand, the English held that liberty exists in an established history and traditions of a political society. On the other hand, American colonists held a more Lockean idea of liberty—that all men are born free and equal, and that there are certain “unalienable rights” guaranteed to man through “Nature and Nature’s God.”[1] The differences between the two philosophies are best exemplified in two documents regarding rights, the English Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence. Analyses of the two documents indicates that the English Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 was a return to tradition of liberties secured in ancient English tradition, while the American Revolution though similar to English tradition, was in reality something new in political history.

Looking to the English Bill of Rights, one might believe that a new contract had been created between the English people and the newly crowned William and Mary. However, the English Bill of Rights was not a departure from traditions of the Commonwealth. In fact, this event was simply a restoration of ancient rights and liberties that were enshrined in English common law for hundreds of years. Throughout the document, references are consistently made to ancient traditions as the justification for the document. For example, after the list of grievances aired against James II,

The Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representation of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done), for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties, declare:…[2]

The language of this section in particular is key to understanding the difference between the English Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. In the Bill of Rights, the language is specifically referring to the ancient traditions of the Commonwealth that were the source of the rights of Englishmen. These are enshrined in the Magna Charta from 1215; some of these basic English rights include, but are not limited to, fines being levied according to the degree of the offense, compensation for taking of private property, and liberties being granted to all subjects.[3] Even within the Magna Charta, there were appeals to ancient liberties enjoyed by residents of London. “And the City of London shall have all its ancient liberties and free custom…”[4]

Ancient liberties were the focus of the document, not Lockean ideas of natural rights and equality as in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the authors Bill of Rights seem to have rejected the idea that all men are equal in its statement that representatives from “all the estates of the people of this realm” came together to make the declaration.[5] Specifically mentioning existence of the estates of people was no accident. They wanted to elucidate the natural inequality of mankind, something that the Declaration of Independence explicitly rejects.

Contrary to what is seen in the English Bill of Rights, which emphasizes ancient customs and traditions, the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 makes an argument for something completely new and different than the former. Within the Declaration, some of the liberties mentioned are also English rights; however, this is merely an incidental, as the English were the colonizers along the eastern seaboard in North America. The main foundation of the Declaration is the philosophy of Lockean liberalism, not an appeal to ancient rights and liberties; this is most exemplified in the introductory paragraphs of the document, which closely parallel ideas directly from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. It is because of the fact that the Declaration is a Lockean document that the American Revolution brought about something new.

The unmistakably Lockean language in the Declaration emphasized natural rights and man’s natural state of equality, something that the English Bill of Rights purposefully lacked.[6] Thus, the famous words of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”[7] The aforementioned doctrines of natural rights and natural equality are plagiarized from Locke. In chapter two of the Second Treatise, Locke emphasizes the state of equality into which man is born, contrary to what is purported in the English Bill of Rights. This is a sharp departure from English custom which looked to ancient rights that had been handed down over time, and were only meant for Englishmen because such a concept of natural rights was not an accepted doctrine. However, the American regime can be classified as having a natural rights base derived from Lockean thought.

While both the American Revolution and Glorious Revolution emphasized “rights,” there were two fundamentally different meanings the respective movements. The English based their rights in ancient traditions. The Americans held the Lockean natural rights theory and built their regime upon such. The latter’s dependence upon natural rights theory, though, is not as stable as England’s approach. As was written by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, natural rights exist clearly and perfectly in the abstract, “but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything, they want everything”[8] Though appeals to natural rights may appear to be the moral high ground, such a foundation may lead to practical problems for such a nation’s future.

[1] Bruce Frohnen, ed., “The Declaration of Independence,” in The American Republic: Primary Sources(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ©2002), 189.

[2] Bruce Frohnen, ed., “The English Bill of Rights,” in The American Republic: Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ©2002), 107.

[3] Bruce Frohnen, ed., “Magna Charta,” in The American Republic: Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ©2002), 93-96.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] “The English Bill of Rights,” 106.

[6] Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 5-6.

[7] Bruce Frohnen, ed., “The Declaration of Independence,” in The American Republic: Primary Sources(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ©2002), 189.

[8] Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, 2nd ed., ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2008), 5013.

Follow Seth on Twitter: @sconnell1776

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