Documents: Creation of the Constitution
Among specific guarantees, the “Great Charter” provided that the Church of England would be free, that no tax for military purposes would be imposed without legislative consent, that no man would be prosecuted for violating the law without credible witnesses, and that freedom of movement into and out of England would be secured. One of the most important, and often quoted, provisions stated that “no freeman shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed; nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” This provision resembles that part of the U. S. Constitution found in Amendments 5 and 14 which states that “no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Another of the most important, and often quoted, provisions of Magna Carta asserts: “To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.”
The men who later wrote and adopted the U. S. Constitution as well as its Bill of Rights were clearly influenced by some of the ideas found in the “Great Charter.”
The framers of later 18th century American documents were familiar with English history and specifically with the English Petition of Right. It is not surprising, therefore, that they included several protections found in the Petition of Right in American documents: no taxation without consent of the legislature, right to petition, right to due process of law, and right to a fair trial by a jury.
The framers of American government in a later century were very familiar with Hobbes’ philosophy, but do not appear to have been as influenced by Hobbes as much as they were by John Locke.
The document asserted that Englishmen had certain inalienable civil and political rights. It made clear that “the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.” Unless Parliament consented, the monarch could not act as judges or raise or keep a standing army. The monarch could not impose fines or punishment without benefit of trial. English citizens had the right to petition the king and could not be punished for doing so. Freedom of speech in Parliament was guaranteed. Of interest for the framers of the U. S. Bill of Rights in the late 18th Century was a specific provision of the English Bill of Rights which stated: “that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” That language is almost identical to that found in the Eighth Amendment of the U. S. Bill of Rights of 1791.
The influence of the Virginia Declaration of Rights on the authors of later significant American documents cannot be exaggerated. All one has to do is examine portions of the U. S. Declaration of Independence, the original U. S. Constitution, and, especially, the U. S. Bill of Rights, to understand how great was the impact of Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. Most, but not all, of the rights spelled out in the U. S. Bill of Rights can be traced to Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Somehow the Congress of the Articles of Confederation did manage to adopt two major pieces of legislation: (1) the Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for a systematic development of western lands and set aside lot No. 16 of every township for the support of public schools; and (2) the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The one event which did more than anything else to persuade leaders of the time that something had to be done about the Articles was Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in late 1786 and early 1787.
The law was partially motivated as a response to Patrick Henry’s call to expand government support for teachers who at that time were mainly Episcopalian ministers. Passage of the law led to the end of forced government support for the Episcopalian church in the state. Virginia thus became the first state to disestablish its official religion. Other states soon followed suit, especially after the ratification in 1791 of the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment which included the no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion clauses.
According to the Ordinance, no less than three and not more than five states could be carved out of this Northwest Territory. When any of the states had 60,000 free inhabitants, it would be admitted to the Union of the United States “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatever.” The Ordinance spelled out in some detail what the government of each state should look like. The Ordinance also addressed the rights of inhabitants of the territory. For example, it declared that “no person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments in the said territory.” It listed such fundamental rights as trial by jury, writ of habeas corpus, no cruel or unusual punishment, and no deprivation of life or liberty except by judgment of one’s peers or the law of the land. It declared that “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” It also called for “the utmost good faith to always be observed toward the Indians and their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.”
Perhaps the most remarkable provision of the Ordinance, however, was Article 6 which stated that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
One significant result of the Northwest Ordinance was that it greatly accelerated westward expansion.