• Exploring American History

Birthing the Bill of Rights

Updated: Jan 2

Composed of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights was added to the document’s text in an effort to illustrate the various civil rights and liberties the Constitution was written to protect. They also affirm the fact that any power or authority not specifically assigned to the federal government in the document’s text belonged either to the people or the states.

It might be said the Bill of Rights was conceived on May 17, 1215. In that year, King John of England was dealing with a serious revolt. The sky-high taxes he had imposed acted as a catalyst to incite the anger of numerous barons in the land. On May 17th, Robert Fitzwalter rose up a rebellious army and captured London, resulting in King John’s hand being forced into negotiations.

The aftermath of these discussions gave birth to the most meaningful legal document ever written, the Magna Carta, also known as “the Great Charter”. The document, created by the king and his barons, created an agreement comprised of 63 clauses which imposed limits on the monarch’s rule. Of those mentioned in the list, the clause best known gave the right for a fair trial to the noblemen.

Sadly, the original version was short lived. Apparently not happy with the restraints placed upon him by the Magna Carta, King John reached out to Pope Innocent III to request the document be nullified. Three months later, His Holiness complied; however, King John profited little from his efforts. The king succumbed to dysentery and died the following year on October 19, 1216. It was left to his nine-year-old son, King Henry III, to appease the barons and issue an abridged version of the Great Charter in 1225.

In the United States, the framers of the Constitution referred to this English document as they compiled the American manuscript. The language of more than half of the Bill of Rights can be found in the Magna Carta. The Fifth Amendment is a perfect example. It guarantees that the government cannot seize private property for public use unless the owner is fairly compensated. Article 28 of the Magna Carta includes a similar statement, referencing the seizure of corn or other goods.

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A system of checks and balances which would accord the monarchy its necessary strength, but would prevent its perversion by a tyrant or a fool.

Winston Churchill

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