J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Birthplaces of the Bill of Rights

Where was the Bill of Rights born?

In Parliament in 1689, as a codification of the Glorious Revolution that deposed King James II and brought his daughter Mary and her husband, Prince William of Orange, to the throne of England, Wales, and Scotland.

Here’s the text of that bill from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School. It’s official title was “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown.”

A little over a century passed between that law and the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that we Americans call the Bill of Rights, but it’s clearly the inspiration. Look, for instance, at this clause in the English law:
excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
And Amendment VIII:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
When British-Americans of the late eighteenth century talked about the Bill of Rights, this is the document they had in mind. We Americans like to believe we invented everything, but in this case we inherited the concept and the terminology from Britain.

So where was the American Bill of Rights born?

In the various state conventions that wrote new constitutions for the states as they broke away from Britain and afterward. For example:
When Americans considered strengthening the national government in 1787, one common concern was what that might mean to the rights that their state constitutions had guaranteed.

TOMORROW: “Father of the Bill of Rights”?

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