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THE U.S. CONSTITUTION'S ANTECEDENTS
A constitution is a written declaration of society's basic rules. These rules do not drop from the sky. The words—and how those words are interpreted—result from people arguing and fighting over who can do what to whom, which translates into issues like slavery, taxation, the power of corporations, the right to vote, the right to join real labor unions, and more. Thus a constitution should be seen as a "truce" that people draw up in the course of social conflict. The United States Constitution—like a lot of things—is best understood in the context of people struggling in history.
The first constitution in the English-speaking world was the MAGNA CARTA. It appeared in England when a group of barons got tired of the way King John was ruling the realm. Besides messing with Robin Hood (which was probably fine with the barons anyway), John forced the barons to give him tax money—and worse, service in the army—for ridiculous military adventures overseas. In 1215, the barons took control of London, and forced John to meet with them in a meadow called Runnymeade. There, John agreed to a list of rules he would obey in running the Kingdom. This list became known as the Magna Carta.
38. Henceforth no bailiff shall put anyone on trial by his own unsupported allegation, without bringing credible witnesses to the charge.
39. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will We go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
It appears that John intended to break the Magna Carta agreement as soon as he had the power to do so. However, he died the next year, and his young son Henry (the Third) was in no position to fight with the barons over the Magna Carta. The English came to see it as the primary list of rules for living in the kingdom.
When English people started living in North America, they set up rules for living in the new land. Usually they did this on the basis of a charter granted by the king, like the VIRGINIA CHARTER. (The point, in part, was to clarify who owned what and who owed what to whom.) Or they would make one up themselves, if they could, which is what the Pilgrims did in Massachusetts. Documents like the Virginia Charter and the MAYFLOWER COMPACT were early constitutions.
FIRST CHARTER OF VIRGINIA, April 10, 1606:
Also we do, for Us, our Heirs, and Successors, DECLARE, by these Presents, that all and every Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of ENGLAND, or any other of our said Dominions.
MAYFLOWER COMPACT, NOV. 11, 1620:
We, whose names are underwritten ... Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politics, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony....
REASONS FOR EMIGRATION
The seventeenth century saw English people leaving merrie olde England to live in North America because England wasn't so merrie anymore.
The centuries after Magna Carta had seen your regular array of royal assassinations, baronial rebellions, and peasant riots. The Magna Carta was seldom an issue, though, either because people had other things to fight over, or because the kings were so strong that they could force their interpretation of Magna Carta down the throats of everyone else.
In the 1600s, however, all this began to change, particularly when the Stuart family assumed the throne of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.
Religion provided a major source of tension. In the 1500s, most of England had become Protestant, but for a few years, Elizabeth's older sister Mary had tried burning English people to force them to return to Catholicism. After Mary's death, the English remained nervous because they saw the Catholics pushing thought control in Spain (the Inquisition), mass killings in France (Batholomew Day Massacre) and military conquest in Germany (Thirty Years War).
Queen Elizabeth was no Queen Mary. She made sure her people thought she loved and respected them. She had impeccable Protestant credentials. More importantly, Elizabeth knew how to deal with aggressive Catholics from powerful Spain. When Spain sent an Armada to invade England, Elizabeth sunk the ships with the help of her good people and God's bad weather.
Elizabeth was a hard act to follow, and the Stuarts made things even harder. King James Stuart I and his son, Charles I, were snots. They liked their religion with a degree of pomp (which outraged the Puritans who liked their Protestantism "pure"). James and Charles also sucked up to Catholic powers like Spain and France.
English people who were nervous about prelates controlling their worship and rulers grabbing their money left England for North America.
REVOLUTION IN ENGLAND
Not every malcontent left England. As quickly as they left, King James's successor, Charles, created more of them. Not only did he marry a Catholic wife, he was even more aggressive than his father in telling the Puritans that they could not worship like Puritans. Worse, he began levying taxes without the consent of Parliament. (Parliament was a body which represented the well-to-do in the Kingdom, and the King was supposed to get consent from this group before he took money from them.) Finally, Charles started throwing people who did not pay his illegal taxes into jail.
Much of what Charles did seemed to violate the provisions of the Magna Carta. When Parliament protested, Charles stopped calling Parliament into session. When people tried to take these issues to court, the judges (appointed by the King) said that what Charles did was OK because he was the king, and the king had to be obeyed or there would be no social stability, no national security, and so forth and so on.
HAMPDEN SHIP MONEY CASE
"I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else." —Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary Military Leader
England is a prison the variety of subtleties in the laws preserved by the sword are bolts, bars and doors of the prison; the lawyers are the jailors, and poor men are the prisoners" —Gerard Winstanley, Leveller
Charles managed well enough until 1639, when he tried to tell the Scots how to worship. They raised an army that overran Charles' forces. Charles had to call Parliament in order to raise money for more and better troops. Parliament wanted to talk about the rights Charles had been violating before they gave him money or soldiers. To push the members of Parliament to his way of thinking, Charles tried to arrest some of them in the House of Commons. But Parliament raised its own troops and turned on the king. England was plunged into civil war.
Parliament's army beat the pants off Charles' troops because Parliament was willing to let ordinary people serve in positions normally filled by aristocrats. To the surprise of the aristocrats, the ordinary people had a lot of military talent and determination. By 1647, some of the more politically active commoners in the army thought it was time for them to determine how the country would be run after the revolution. A group of them began drafting a series of documents which would have been the first official constitution for England. This group was called the Levellers, because they wanted a more equal ("leveled") distribution of power.
THE FIRST AGREEMENT OF THE PEOPLE, October 28, 1647:
1. That matters of religion and the ways of God's worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power ...
2. That the matter of impresting and constraining any of us to serve in the wars is against our freedom ...
3. That after the dissolution of this present Parliament, no person be at any time questioned for anything said or done in reference to the late public differences ...
4. That in all laws made or to be made every person may be bound alike ...
5. That as the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good, and not evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people.
REVOLUTIONARY COLONY CONSTITUTIONS
In the meantime, the English people in the colonies were not sitting idle. They too, drafted constitutions and declarations of rights.
THE FUNDAMENTAL ORDERS OF CONNECTICUT (1639):
... well knowing where a people are gathered the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government ... [we] do therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth ... also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such law, rules, orders and decrees as shall be made, ordered and decreed, as follows ...
MARYLAND TOLERATION ACT (1649):
... noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province ... professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion ...
MASSACHUSETTS BODY OF LIBERTIES, December 10, 1641:
1. No man's life shall be taken away, no man's honor or good name shall be stained, no man's person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished ... unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country warranting the same ...
2. Every person within this jurisdiction, whether inhabitant or foreigner, shall enjoy the same justice and law ...
47. No man shall be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses, or that which is equivalent there unto.
48. Every Inhabitant of the Countrie shall have free libertie to search and veewe any Rooles, Records, or Regesters of any Court or office except the Councel ...
80. Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defense upon her assault
89. If any people of other nations professing the true Christian religion shall flee to us from the tyranny or oppression of their persecutors, or from famine, wars, or the like necessary and compulsory cause, they shall be entertained and succored amongst us, according to that power and prudence God shall give us.
COUNTER-REVOLUTION TO GLORIOUS REVOLUTION
The Revolution in England went only so far. Parliament executed King Charles, but the Levellers made the richer Parliamentarians nervous. The latter squished the former (at Burford, 1649), and Parliament's general Oliver Cromwell ruled as "Lord Protector." When Cromwell died, the well-to-do thought it would be safer to have a king than mess around further with this democracy stuff. So the son of Charles I was called from France to return to England. Charles II was given the throne on the condition that he listen to the well-to-do in Parliament, pay the army, allow some freedom of religion, and sanction land transactions that had occurred during the Revolution.
When the new Parliament met, the well-to-do started dealing with the less-well-to-do. During the revolution, ordinary people had begun exercising a number of democratic rights, including the right to print local news, and the right to gather signatures in a petition and present them to Parliament. After the Restoration, (of King Charles II) Parliament squelched these rights.
Charles II generally steered clear of any confrontation with Parliament. His brother and successor, James II, was less circumspect. He appointed Catholics to every post he could, and allowed freedom of religion to Catholics and religious dissenters. Catholics were making a lot of English people nervous because in France the Catholic King had just revoked religious tolerance for Protestants (1685). When James II jailed some protesting Anglican bishops for seditious libel, seven rich Englishmen invited William of Orange (King of Netherlands) to invade England. Knowing he had so much Protestant support in England, William found this to be an offer he could not refuse. He sailed an army into England. King James' supporters abandoned him, and he ran away to France.
This was called the GLORIOUS REVOLUTION OF 1688. Some people consider it "glorious" because James did not have his head cut off. Others consider it glorious because it was during this period that Parliament re-established the right to petition. It also allowed the censorship laws to lapse. It formalized the right to habeas corpus, which forced jailors to give legal grounds for holding prisoners, and provide valid information as to prisoners' whereabouts, and it also required them to release prisoners who had been unlawfully held.
Another reason this revolution was so glorious was because the following year (1689) Parliament passed a Bill of Rights to confirm and secure what a lot of people had been fighting for:
ENGLISH BILL OF RIGHTS (1689):
5. That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;
6. That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;
7. That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
8. That election of members of Parliament ought to be free;
9. That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;
10. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
After 1702, the English were about done with charter drafting and rights declarations. If everyone was not totally satisfied, dissatisfaction did not raise people to revolutionary levels as it had in the middle 1600s. The English people in America began to worry more about nearby and hostile French and Indians than they worried about their rulers across the sea.
In 1763, things changed again. England had just won a war with France. England decided it was time to run an empire. For the colonists, this meant (among other things) that they could not steal the Indians' land beyond the Appalachians. Worse, they had to start buying British goods, instead of any goods they fancied. Worse still, they had to pay taxes that Parliament imposed on them without their consent - something Parliament had objected to when King Charles tried it on them 100 years before.
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The colonists did not like any of this empire stuff. They threw British tea into the Boston Harbor (1773).
There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots, that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered, something notable and striking. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history. —John Adams
The British closed the port of Boston, revoked privileges in some colonial charters, and forced colonists to house British soldiers. The colonists started protesting in the streets. They burnt effigies. They boycotted British goods. They set up committees to keep themselves informed of local political and military developments. In 1774, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in a "first continental congress." In April 1775, the British began worrying about military stores that the Massachusetts militia was holding in Concord. When British soldiers marched to seize the supplies American farmers began shooting at them on Lexington Green and Concord Bridge. A second continental congress met and sent George Washington (of Virginia) to raise a people's army in Massachusetts.
Excerpted from U.S. CONSTITUTION FOR BEGINNERS by STEVE BACHMANN, JORGE DIAZ. Copyright © 2012 Steve Bachmann. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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