Slavery, The Paradox of the American Revolution Part 1 – States Bill of Rights by Harry Schenawolf

John Adams and States Delegates
John Adams and States Delegates

It can be argued that the colonial bill of rights stemmed from a reaction to what was considered ‘heavy handed’ powers exerted by the British government’s representatives in America. Many Americans, especially the wealthy and merchants, felt constrained by the ever imposing laws and resolutions that cut into their finances. This filtered down to the farmers and laborers who saw the cost of goods rise and a British government who acted as if they had a right to their person and possessions. Parliament seemed unconcerned with the colonialists’ rights under English law. They saw King George as overstepping his power as outlined in England’s Bill of Rights. A series of Provincial Bills of Rights were penned over a hundred year period as a reminder to England of their responsibilities toward ‘the people’.

Americans were familiar with bills of rights. Settlers of North America and the thirteen Provinces enjoyed the rights and privileges of Englishmen. They believed these rights were supported by the Magna Carta[1] the Petition of Rights[2], and the Bill of Rights of 1689[3].

The last, Bill of Rights of 1689, establishes a constitutional monarch in England in which the King or Queen has a largely ceremonial position. The monarch acts as the head of state, but the powers are defined and limited by law. It had a significant influence on the American colonies and formed the basis of their conceived rights that were being thwarted by King George the III and Parliament.

Fifth Virginia Convention of 1776
Fifth Virginia Convention of 1776

The 1689 Bill of Rights was far reaching as it enhanced the democratic process. It guaranteed free elections and frequent meetings of Parliament, free speech and the right of the people to complain against their King and Government, forbidding excess fines and cruel punishment, and establishing a representative government with laws made by a group that acts for the people. Many Americans believed that they were being denied these rights that their fellow Englishmen enjoyed and tensions grew. The last, establishing a representative government in Parliament, which the colonists would later term ‘taxation without representation,’ was among the leading spark that ignited the flame of the American Revolution. These same articles in the 1689 Bill of Rights were later found in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.

The colonies had drafted their own bills of rights based on the Magma Carta and later such acts. These documents listed many of the same articles. Among them were; The Maryland Act for the Liberties of the People of 1639, The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, The Plantation Agreement of the Narragansett Plantations, The Fundamental Laws of West Jersey of 1676, and the Pennsylvania Carter of Privileges of 1701.

Because of this long experience dealing with fundamental rights, when it became apparent that the colonies were breaking away from England, the colonies drew up their own ‘states’ constitutions. Each one included bills of rights in one form or another. Throughout each of these states’ bills were recurring themes such as: all men being equal, government is for the people, no man is above the law and enjoying special privileges, no title or office may be hereditary, free elections, laws are made and disbanded by representatives of the people, a right to trial by jury, no cruel or unusual punishment, no seizure of person or property without evidence, freedom of the press, the right to an armed militia, no peacetime army, and freedom of religion.

These rights were written by white men with an eye toward the white race. African and Native Americans were excluded from all consideration within these rights. The African American was property and therefore terms laid down to assure the liberties and well being of ‘the people’ was exclusive of the whites. Special courts of oyer and terminer were arraigned for slaves and Native Americans. These courts were void of many of the rights so carefully outlined in states bills and relied on archaic and at times barbaric penalties for conviction. Though an African American may have been born free or freed through purchase or manumission, he never fully enjoyed the liberties outlined in these first states bill or rights.

The most famous of these bills of rights were those of Massachusetts (Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, approved June 15, 1780) and Virginia (Fifth Virginia Convention approved on June 12, 1776). The Massachusetts version was drafted by John Adams and the Virginian ‘Declaration of Rights,’ was written entirely by George Mason of Gunston Hall, a leading statesman and strong supporter of the American cause for independence from Great Britain. The two bills are listed here in succinct formats.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, May 15, 1776.   

Virginia Constitution 1776
Virginia Constitution 1776

As one reads through Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, it is uncanny how similar the wording is to later declarations made by legislative bodies, including the Second Congress which drafted the Declaration of Independence during the hot summer of 1776:

A declaration of rights made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention; which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government.

Section 1: That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty… and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Sec. 2: That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…

Sec. 3: That government is or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people… [government] that is best is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration, and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath [a]… right to reform, alter, or abolish it, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Sec. 4: That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community… neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to e hereditary.

Sec. 5: That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may e restrained from oppression… [by] the people, [that] they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections…”

Sec. 6: That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men… with attachment to the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected…

Sec. 7: That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws… without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights…

Sec. 8: That in all capital or criminal prosecutions, a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage… nor can he give evidence against himself…

Sec. 9: That excessive bail had ought not to be required… nor cruel and unusual punishment.

Sec. 10: That general warrants, whereby an officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named… or whose offense… is not supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.

Sec. 11: In controversies respecting property, and in suits… trial by jury is preferable…

Sec. 12: That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty…

Sec. 13:   That a well-regulated militia… trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state, that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty…

Sec. 14: That the people have a right to uniform government, therefore that no government separate from the [state] government… ought to be… established…

Sec. 15: That no free government… can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice…

Sec. 16: … all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience…

A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780

Massachusetts Constitution 1780
Massachusetts Constitution 1780

Adams penned these rights, no doubt, with the Declaration of Independence in mind. It listed arguable reasons for the former colonies to disavow their previous government under Great Britain. He stresses that is the duty of the people, and not a monarch or chamber of Lords who, through hereditary, are granted judicial rights to form the laws that govern a land. His writing embraces much more legalese than Virginia’s Bill of Rights, however the major principals of a person’s equality and rights by law are firmly established in both declarations.

Wording that precedes the articles within state that the government “should protect, and furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.” He writes that all the people should be governed by certain laws for the common good. He states it is the responsibility of the people to make and enact laws and that every man finds security within these laws. The Bill of Rights was the first part in a larger ‘Frame of Government’ and Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Article I: All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights… [which includes] the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties… acquiring, possessing, and protecting property… obtaining their safety and happiness.

Article II: It is the right of all men… to worship the Supreme Being… no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience…

Article III: … to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize…. to make suitable provision at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD… no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

Article IV: The people of this commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves, as a free, sovereign, and independent state…

Article V: … magistrates and officers of government, vested with authority… are at all times accountable to them [the people]…

Article VI: No man [has] any other title to obtain advantages or particular and exclusive privileges… title being in nature neither hereditary, nor transmissible to children, or descendants, or relations by blood, the idea of a man born a magistrate, lawgiver, or judge is absurd and unnatural.

Article VII: Government is… for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people… therefore the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to… reform, alter, or totally change the same

Article VIII: To prevent those who are vested with authority from becoming oppressors, the people have a right… to cause their public officers to return to private life, and to fill up vacant places by certain and regular elections…

Article IX: All elections ought to be free; and all the inhabitants… have an equal right to elect officers…

Article X: … no part of the property of any individual, can, with justice, be taken from him, or applied to public uses without his own consent, or that of the representative body of the people…

Article XI: Every subject of the Commonwealth… ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it…

Article XII: No subject shall be held to answer for any crime or offense, until… fully and plainly… described to him; or be compelled to accuse, or furnish evidence against himself… have a right to produce all proofs that may be favorable to him; to meet the witnesses against him face to face, and to be fully heard in his defense by himself or his council… no subject shall be arrested… or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate; but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.

The legislature shall not… subject any person to a capital or infamous punishment… without trial by jury.

Article XIII: In criminal prosecutions, the verification of facts… is one of the greatest securities of the life, liberty, and property of the citizen.

Article XIV: Every subject has a right to be secure from all unreasonable searches, and seizures of his person… And no warrant ought to be issued but in cases, and with the formalities prescribed by the laws.

Article XV: In all controversies concerning property, and in all suits between two or more persons… the parties have a right to a trial by jury…

Article XVI: The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state it ought not… be constricted…

Article XVII: The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defense. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained with the consent of the legislature…

Article XVIII: The people… have a right to require of their law-givers and magistrates, an exact and constant observance of them, in the formation and execution of the laws…

Article XIX: The people have a right… to assemble… and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer…

Article XX: The power of suspending the laws, or the execution of the laws, ought never to be exercised but by the legislature…

Article XXI: The freedom of deliberation, speech and debate… is so essential to the rights of the people…

Article XXII: The legislature should frequently assemble for… the making of laws…

Article XXIII: No subsidy, charge, tax… ought to be established… with the consent of the people…

Article XXIV: Laws made to punish for actions done before the existence of such laws… are unjust…

Article XXV: No subject [may] be declared guilty of treason or felony by the legislature.

Article XXVI: No magistrate or court of law shall demand excessive bail or sureties, impose excessive fines, or inflict cruel or unusual punishments.

Article XXVII: In time of peace no soldier ought to be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner; and in time of war such quarters ought not to be made but by the civil magistrate, in a manner ordained by the legislature.

Article XXVIII: No person can in any case be subjected to law-martial… but by the authority of the legislature.

Article XXIX: … It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit… for the security of the rights of the people, and of every citizen, that the judges of the supreme judicial court should hold their offices as long as they behave themselves well…

Article XXX: … the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers… The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.

RESOURCES:

Commager, Henry Steele & Morris, Richard B., Editors. The Spirit of Seventy-Six. 1958: Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY.

Handlin, Oscar, and Handlin, Mary, editors. The Popular Sources of Political Authority: Documents On the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. 1966: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Peters, Ronald M. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact. 1978: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Mass.

[1] Magna Carta. Declaration issued by King John of England at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. It made peace between the unpopular King and a gathering of rebel barons, promising the protection of church rights, protecting barons from illegal imprisonment, limitations on feudal payments to the crown, and swift justice. It was implemented through a council of twenty-five barons. Annulled by Pope Innocent III, the Baron Wars followed and it was reinstated in 1217 where it acquired its title. Eighty years later, in 1297, King Edward I confirmed it as part of England’s statute law.

[2] Petition of Right. In 1625, King Charles I, son of Edward I, inherited the thirty years war from his father. The kingdom was in near financial ruin from years of war expenditures. Charles sought ways to revitalize the crown’s coffers which included imposing higher taxes and billeting troops in civilian homes. Parliament pushed back and Charles declared martial law cancelling many of the rights Englishmen thought justified to keep. Sir Edward Coke of parliament drafted the Petition of Right that both chambers signed on May 26 & 27 of 1628. The rights focused on Charles’ violations of the law including: denying due process, protection from unjust seizure of property or imprisonment, right to trial by jury, and protection from unjust punishments and excessive fines. Charles, under pressure, signed the petition into law on June 7, 1628. He soon rescinded resulting in Civil War and the beheading of Charles I in 1649.

[3]Bill of Rights of 1689. This followed the 1688 Glorious Revolution when King James II was deposed and replaced by King William III and Mary. The most important Articles of the bill are:

A frequently summoned Parliament with free elections, freedom of speech, no armies raised in peacetime, no taxes can be levied without the authority of parliament, laws could not be suspended without the consent of Parliament, and no excessive fines nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. These articles became the basis for America’s cause against England and are included in the Declaration of Independence and later Constitution.

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