Magna Carta exercised a strong influence both on the United States Constitution and on the constitutions of the various states. However, its influence was shaped by what eighteenth-century Americans believed Magna Carta to signify. Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power. In part because of this tradition, most of the state constitutions included declarations of rights intended to guarantee individual citizens a list of protections and immunities from the state government. The United States also adopted the Bill of Rights, in part, due to this political conviction.
Both the state declarations of rights and the United States Bill of Rights incorporated several guarantees that were understood at the time of their ratification to descend from rights protected by Magna Carta. Among these are freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, a right to a speedy trial, a right to a jury trial in both a criminal and a civil case, and protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
Many broader American constitutional principles have their roots in an eighteenth-century understanding of Magna Carta, such as the theory of representative government, the idea of a supreme law, and judicial review.
Journal of the Continental Congress
When the first Continental Congress met in September and October 1774, it drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances claiming for the colonists the liberties guaranteed to them under “the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts.” The colonists sought the preservation of their self-government, freedom from taxation without representation, the right to a trial by a jury of one’s countrymen, and their enjoyment of “life, liberty and property” free from arbitrary interference from the crown. On this title page is a symbol of unity adopted by the congress: twelve arms reaching out to grasp a column that is topped by a liberty cap. The base of the column reads “Magna Carta.”
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In May 1776, the Continental Congress recommended that the assembly of each colony create a new state constitution “sufficient to the exigencies of affairs.” Every constitution created by these newly independent states included provisions that protected individual rights from actions by the state. Most of them articulated explicit declarations of these rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, prohibition of excessive bail or fines, right to a jury trial, and protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Frequently the last of these rights is expressed in the language of Magna Carta’s Chapter 29, for example, line twelve in North Carolina’s constitution.
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“North-Carolina” in The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation between the Said States. . . . London: J. Stockdale, 1782. Law Library, Library of Congress (032)
The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation between the Said States. . . . London: J. Stockdale, 1782. Law Library, Library of Congress (032)
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Drafted by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), George Bryan (1731–1791), James Cannon (1740–1782) and others during the summer of 1776, Pennsylvania’s constitution borrowed language from the Stamp Act Congress, the First Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence. Its framers sought to reverse the disproportionate power that a small minority of Pennsylvania landowners held by creating what has often been described as the most democratic constitution in the United States. The Pennsylvania constitution established a unicameral legislature without a senate, an executive assembly without a governor, and voting rights for all free men who paid taxes.
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Jefferson’s Copy of the Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five articles that James Madison (1751–1836), John Jay (1745–1829), and Alexander Hamilton published anonymously in order to build support in New York for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the widespread adoption of declarations of rights for state constitutions, the members of the Constitutional Convention generally opposed adding a bill of rights to the federal Constitution. In Federalist No. 84, Hamilton argued against the inclusion of a bill of rights, stating: “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.”
[Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)]. No. 84 in The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, Vol. 2. New York: J. and A. M’Lean, 1788. Thomas Jefferson’s Library, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (034)
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Madison's Copy of the Proposed “Bill of Rights”
The amendments to the Constitution that Congress proposed in 1791 were strongly influenced by state declarations of rights, particularly the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which incorporated a number of the protections of the 1689 English Bill of Rights and Magna Carta. The fifth through tenth articles of the proposed amendments, which correspond to the fourth through eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution as ratified, embody this tradition most directly, guaranteeing speedy justice, a jury trial, proportionate punishment, and due process of law.
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George Washington’s Draft of the United States Constitution
William Samuel Johnson chaired the Committee of Style, which included James Madison, Rufus King (1755–1827), Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816), a delegate from Pennsylvania, who is credited with providing the preamble phrase “We the people of the United States”—a simple phrase that anchored the new national government in the consent of the people rather than a confederation of states. Shown here is Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which details the powers that are delegated to the executive branch of the government.
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