When many Americans think of civil liberties, they think first of the Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments to the Constitution are some of the most important guarantors of freedom in America. Unfortunately, many people think the Founding Fathers just thought these up during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In reality, the American Founders were working with concepts they were already familiar with.
Antecedents to the Bill of Rights
The United States owes much of its system of governance to its British heritage. From the three branches of government to the Bill of Rights, there are antecedents from British history. The first of these antecedents was the 1215 Magna Carta, which was one of the earliest limits on the power of the monarchy and gave legal protections to the nobility.
The commoners in England got some additional protections when Charles I agreed to the Petition of Right in 1628. This document prohibited taxation without Parliamentary consent, which was the forerunner of the no taxation without representation argument pushed by the American colonists against the British crown. Additionally, the Petition prohibited the quartering of soldiers in private homes and restricted the use of martial law.
The most important of the antecedents of the US Bill of Rights was the English Bill of Rights of 1689. This legislation established the precedent that the king served at the pleasure of Parliament. It also included provisions for religious toleration and limited freedom of speech. Individuals were protected from an overzealous government by the clauses that dealt with issues like the right to a jury trial and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights
As originally written, the US Constitution did not include any protections for individual citizens. Many people recognized this departure from the English tradition and threatened to withhold their vote to ratify the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists saw the lack of a bill of rights as one of the main reasons to oppose the Constitution.
The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, promised to submit a bill of rights in the first session of the new Congress the Constitution provided for. Enough delegates in states like New York and Virginia changed their votes as a result. In 1791, Madison presented 12 potential amendments through Congress. The states ratified 10 of the 12, and these became the Bill of Rights that protected the freedoms of speech, religion and the press. They also provided protection from unlawful searches and seizures, self-incrimination and cruel and unusual punishment, among other things. These liberties are ensured by the Bill of Rights for American citizens to this day.