Prelude to Liberty
As remarkable as it is, the document which emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was made possible only by centuries of struggle. In fact, the origins of the U.S. Constitution, that document which establishes the American system of government and guarantees our fundamental rights, may be traced back at least 500 years before delegates converged on Philadelphia.
The date was June 15, 1215. The site was Runnymede, a grassy plain along England's Thames River. And it was there that England's King John places his signature on the Magna Carta, the first and perhaps most significant predecessor of the U.S. Constitution.
The Magna Carta was actually drafted by a group of feudal barons controlling large tracts of land under charter from the king, to whom they owed allegiance. For several years, King John had been making use of their money and services, without their consent, to finance a series of wars against France. Fed up with this behavior, and secure in the knowledge that the king relied upon them for funding, the barons forced his hand with the Magna Carta.
Key provisions in the document included limitations on the king's authority, a ban on certain forms of taxation without the approval of a council of barons and other officials, and an espoused right to legal judgment "of one's peers or by the law of the land."
Although these provisions came to have little practical effect -- indeed, King John himself did not feel compelled to abide by them -- it did represent the first attempt to impose a limit on the arbitrary exercise of governmental authority. This would later play a major role in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, as the drafters developed
the systems of checks and balances which became part of our system of government. .Another great English document which was to provide inspiration for the U.S. Constitution was the English Petition of Rights, signed by Charles I in 1628. The origin of this document can be tracked back to the actions of the king himself, who in 1625 dissolved Parliament after it failed to support his war against Spain. Deprived by his own rashness of tax revenues -- which could only be obtained through Parliament -- Charles I attempted to force loans from many of the more wealthy citizens of the nation. The penalty for refusal to honor the king's request was imprisonment.
Among those jailed for failure to make the loans were five knights. Attempts by their backers to determine a charge or indictment against the knights were met only with the king's reply that they were being held "by special command." This case -- subsequently to become known as Darnel's Case in recognition of Sir Thomas Darnel, one of the knights -- created great resentment not only among the people of the nation, but also among the members of the now-dissolved Parliament.
Although the plea of the knights was eventually heard before the King's Bench, the case was virtually decided before it came to court. Charles I had already replaced the chief justice, who opposed the tax system, with a judge of his own choosing.
And so, by 1628, when Charles I convened another session of Parliament to raise additional taxes he needed, the body's first act was to pass a resolution condemning the system of forced loans and imprisonment by special command, and prohibiting any form of taxation without the consent of Parliament.
This measure can be viewed as one of the first documents addressing due process of law -- that is, the guarantee that an individual be granted the protection of a fair legal procedure and trial. Needless to say, due process guarantees were to become a fundamental component of the U.S. Constitution.
Under increasing pressure from his subjects, and in desperate need of additional funding, Charles I agreed to sign the Petition of Rights, confident that he could continue to do just as he pleased. And, like his predecessor, King John, he did just that.
Two other English documents were to also greatly influence the development of the U.S. Constitution. One was the British Agreement of the People (1647), while the other was the British Declaration of Rights (1689). Between these two documents, specific provisions provided for a right against self-incrimination, against imprisonment for debt and religious disabilities, against punishments not in proportion to the crime, and for trial by jury.
Although all of these great landmarks of English law lacked the mechanisms needed to guarantee their binding force, they nevertheless marked a monumental leap from the belief that the governing authority was supreme, free from all questioning. As such, they were to serve as sources of inspiration to the foresighted men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create the government of a new nation.