Comparing Declaration of Rights and Bill of Rights

Comparing the English Declaration of Rights and the American Bill of Rights

 

The United States, having started off as an English colony, has been impacted profoundly by the historic English, and the broader European, climate and politics. Though the political and situational climates, in which the two documents were developed, differ greatly, it is interesting to see both the similarities and differences between the two in order to truly understand the impacts that the English Declaration of Rights had on the American Bill of Rights.

 

Origins and Intentions of the English Declaration of Right

 

In the 17th century, many European Monarchs began to move towards an absolute monarchy. Along with the already growing tensions between the British Parliament and King James II, there were growing tensions between British Catholics and Protestants (Coward, 2017). It was clear that England was on the brink of becoming an absolutist state, as evidenced by King James II’s dismissal of parliament and his attempt to rule on his own. As a result, an attack on his throne was imminent by his son-in-law, William of Orange, forcing James II to flee to France. This was considered an effective abdication of the throne at which point, William of Orange ascended the throne with James II’s daughter Mary (Slaughter, 1981).  On February 6, 1689, the English Parliament read the Declaration of Right aloud to William and Mary along with a formal offer of the throne. This Declaration was designed such that it would be a tactical compromise between the Tory and Whig parties who each wanted Absolutism and Constitutional Monarchism respectively (Pincus, 2011).  This original Declaration consisted of two main parts. The first part outlined a list of King James II’s misdeeds and was followed by the second part, which outlined thirteen articles which outlined limits on the powers of the monarch along with the rights of Parliament. The Declaration instituted a limited constitutional monarchy in which the King and Queen has a largely ceremonial positon, and a parliamentary system is in place with the Prime Minister at the head of the government (Pincus, 2011). The Declaration of Right was restated in statutory form as the English Bill of Rights in December of 1689. However, to maintain a clear distinction between this document and the American Bill of Rights, we will proceed to refer to the original Declaration of Right for the remainder of this analysis.

 

Origins and Intentions of the United States Bill of Rights

 

To understand more about the United States’ Bill of Rights, we must fast forward to the late 1780s. As the debate over ratification of the US constitution grew bitter, James Madison drafted a Bill of Rights. These original ten amendments to the US Constitution, aimed to specify individual rights and liberties. The American Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison after the bitter debate over the ratification of the United States Constitution. The Anti-Federalists were concerned that this new Constitution created a presidency so powerful, that it would be akin to a monarchy (Main & Countryman, 2004). As a result, the Bill of Rights was written as a response to the concerns of Anti-Federalists by directly identifying limitations of the government’s power along with individual liberties and rights. The Bill of Rights aimed to minimize the fears of a government exercising oppressive force and was established to protect the freedoms of each individual and would protect the same individuals against fear of a tyrannical government. The Federalists initially opposed the Bill of Rights. Noted Federalist Alexander Hamilton believed that the Bill of Rights supported a government rooted in monarchy. It was realized, however, that the Bill of Rights is an entitlement of each citizen to rights which cannot be infringed on by the government. Thus, the federalists and anti-federalists, were both able to agree that the Bill of Rights was a good compromise as any new laws would not be able to breach the Bill of Rights by infringing on the rights of citizens.  The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans freedom of speech, trial by jury, protections from cruel and unusual punishment, and many other basic liberties that citizens of a nation deserve. Over time, the 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights became an integral part of the United States Constitution and was essentially part of the latter.

 

Similarities Between the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights

 

At the most superficial levels, one of the most evident similarities between the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights is the situations that they were developed in. Both documents were created and developed shortly after war and revolution. When the Americans created the Bill of Rights, they had only recently declared their Independence from the British after the American Revolution and were attempting to create the foundation of a newly independent nation (Main & Countryman, 2004). The British, on the other hand, created the Declaration of Right in response to the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution was precipitated by an absolutist monarchy which resulted in fears about individual rights and freedoms (Coward, 2017). In both situations, the revolutionary situations preceding the creation of the documents gave representatives the power to assert themselves and fight for the freedoms.

 

However, the similarities between the two documents transcends the obvious. By delving deeper into the similarities, we can see that with the creation of the Declaration of Right, the English Parliament developed and promoted a government in which the rights and liberties of individuals were protected from a harsh and oppressive monarchial government. These ideas and philosophies made their way to the 13 American Colonies as well.

 

In both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Right, the influences of English philosopher John Locke can be found.  John Locke was an English philosopher who was dubbed the Father of Liberalism (Anstey, 2003).  Locke wrote extensively about the social contract theory. Social contract refers to the idea that individuals relinquish some of their freedoms to a government and accept the authority of the ruling government. In return, the government is expected to protect the remaining rights of the individuals. Locke believed that individuals benefit by living together under the rule of a government. However, in order to function in a mutually beneficial manner, social contracts provide a framework as to how individuals and governments interact. In Locke’s view, every individual had an inherent right to life, liberty, and estate (Anstey, 2003).  Locke believed that it was the government’s duty to protect the individuals’ lives by ensuring they are free to prosper. He believed that the government needed to enforce a system of laws and rewards in order to improve the society and individuals should have the ability to revolt if the government acted against or infringed on these rights.

 

The similarities in philosophies and backgrounds that worked together to create each of the documents is even further evident as one looks at specific articles from each document.

 

The first amendment to the US Constitution is strikingly similar to the provision of the Declaration of Right which guarantees freedom of speech to parliament especially in debates and parliamentary proceedings (US Congress, 1791; EAC, 2000).  While the English Declaration grants this liberty only to parliament, the Bill of Rights gives this right to every citizen.

 

The second amendment to the US constitution, or the right to bear arms, also bears great similarities to the Declaration of Right, namely the provision that grants Protestants the ability to possess weapons for self-defense (US Congress, 1791; EAC, 2000). Both provisions came about, respectively, in times when people needed protection. For the Americans, they had just finished a Revolutionary War and as a result, it was not unthinkable that protection in the form of gun power would come in use.  In terms of the British Declaration of Right, a major factor behind the Glorious Revolution, which precipitated the Declaration of Right was religious tension between the Catholics and the Protestants. Coming from a Catholic England, Protestants did not have the same liberties as Catholics. Especially with the great deal of tension existing already, coupled with the fact that Catholics could possess guns, this provision was extended to Protestants in order to allow them the same liberty.

 

The nextamendment to draw parallels to the Declaration of Right is the sixth amendment. The sixth amendment ensures that all citizens charged with a crime, are given the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury (US Congress, 1791; EAC, 2000). The analogous English provision states that anyone tried for high treason has access to an impartial jury. While the Declaration of Right offers these liberties only in the case of high treason, the Bill of Rights offers them for all crimes. Though this may seem like a difference, it is important to note that since high treason is the contradiction of the sovereign, it is difficult to identify the same situation in the United States.

 

Finally, the eight amendment to the US Constitution is nearly identical to one of the Declaration of Right provisions. This provision and amendment prohibits excessive fines or bail along with cruel and unusual punishment  (US Congress, 1791; EAC, 2000).

 

It is very evident that the United States Bill of Rights very closely resembles the English Declaration of Right. Both documents came about in similar situations and were written with the intent of limiting power and guaranteeing protection of rights. In fact, American colonists expected to have the same rights as those granted to English citizens. However, this denial of rights was what lead to the American war for Independence. Thus, when the framers of the US Constitution were devising a foundation for this nation, Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights, which closely resembled the British Declaration of Rights, soon became an integral part of the US Constitution itself. Though both documents attempted to curb the powers of government while protecting individual rights, there are also differences that exist between the two documents which should be identified and addressed to truly understand the impact that the Declaration of Right had on the Bill of Rights.

 

Differences Between the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights

 

        One of the most obvious differences between the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights is that the Declaration of Right identifies the separation of powers of the government and how the government is set-up, something that is not necessarily identified in the United States Bill of Rights specifically.

 

        The United States Bill of Rights specifically address individuals and the rights and liberties that should be enjoyed by citizens. It offers protections for speech, the bearing of arms, trial by jury, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and protection against cruel and unusual punishment to name a few. Clearly, all the amendments stated in the United States Bill of Rights are civil liberties and have no relation to the organization and layout of the government itself.

 

This is where the English Declaration of Right differs. Because the Declaration of Right was created as a safeguard against an autocratic government, it aimed to set up a government that protected the rights of individuals. Parliament used the Declaration to ensure that it would be a key player within the English government, thereby making the monarchy an almost ceremonial role. The Declaration of right spends a major portion guaranteeing that there will be elections to see who represents the people as members of the English government. This organizational development of the government is something that is present in the Declaration of Right but not the Bill of Rights. As a result, the English Declaration of Right delved further as it included provisions regarding the operations of government along with protection of liberties.

 

Another major difference between the two documents rests in the target groups affected by the provisions in each document. The English Declaration of Right consists primarily of rights that apply to Parliament but not the English people. The United States Bill of Rights, on the other hand, focuses on the provision and protection of liberties to individual American citizens, not Congress. For example, the first amendment of the United States Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech to all Americans. The parallel Declaration of Right provision only provides freedom of speech to members of Parliament. This difference is not surprising, however. As England left a monarchy and began to shift towards the parliamentary system, the belief was that granting these rights to members of parliament, who were elected to represent individual citizens, would equate to the protection of individual liberties as well (Coward, 2017). The United States, on the other hand, focuses on individual liberties and this highlights the fact that the United States was a true republic”ultimately placing governmental power in the hands of the American people.

Another difference is that though there are a lot of overlaps in the rights that are addressed in both documents, there are different rights as well. Though the American Bill of Rights addresses the freedoms of the press, the Declaration of Right does not identify any liberties to be exercised by the press, again illustrating the focus on individuals by the United States Bill of Rights as opposed to the English Declaration of Rights.

 

Overall, John Locke and other similar philosophers had a great impact on both documents. Locke’s influence was direct on the English Declaration of Right.  His political philosophies are highlighted in the Declaration of Right through the establishment of limitations on the monarchs (Anstey, 2003). Though more indirect, Locke had an even greater impact on the United States Bill of Rights. This is highlighted by the separation of church and state in the United States. In Locke’s viewpoint, the government should not have influence over individual beliefs and individuals should be free to exercise their own religion without any governmental interference (Anstey, 2003). This belief is reflected in the American Bill of Rights in the first amendment. The English Declaration of Right, on the other hand, while preventing the establishment of a Catholic religious institutions”a necessary measure given rising religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants”does not separate church and state explicitly. 

 

Conclusion: Identifying the Impact of the Declaration of Right on the Bill of Rights

 

        The English Declaration of Right took a near autocracy and made it into a constitutional monarchy (Pincus, 2011). It did so by placing strict limits on the power of the monarchy and redistributing it to the Parliament and English people. The impact of the English Declaration of Right has been long standing and can still be seen in in spirit in many similar documents of the throughout the world. It encouraged a form of government where individuals could live in peace knowing that their liberties were protected. It was this philosophy that found itself rooted in the spirits of the thirteen colonies as they began their journey towards independence and then even more as the newly independent thirteen colonies began to develop a constitution as the foundation of the new nation.

 

        As a colony of England, American colonists expected the monarchy to grant them the same liberties granted to British Citizens by the Declaration of Right and the Magna Carta. The lack of these rights, in fact, was one of the major precipitating factors that lead to the American Revolution (Main & Countryman, 2004).  When they finally gained independence, the newly independent Americans knew what they wanted.  Thus, they used the existing English documents as a guideline to design their new government and protect the liberties of their citizens.

 

        Because the American Bill of Rights was so greatly influenced by the English Declaration of Right, it is not surprising that both documents share many philosophies. Both documents show signs of great influence from the philosophies of John Locke and his belief of the social contract. While both documents were designed to protect the rights and interests of the people and were also intended to limit the government, because of the different time periods and political climates that they were developed in, there are also some evident differences. However, it is important to note that even though a focus should be made on these differences, the differences should be identified as similarities of different magnitudes. At the end of the day, the intentions of both documents were the same. What differed were small aspects that did not necessarily apply to the other situation. For example, while both documents were written intending to protect the government, the Declaration of Right details the protection of civil liberties as well as the set-up of the government. The United States Bill of Rights, on the other hand, focuses only on civil liberties.

 

        Though the English Declaration may cover some more aspects, the root of both documents is the same”granting liberties to citizens and ensuring that the government does not take them away. Our nation currently has many debates going on regarding the validity of the amendments. Before we become close minded and automatically shoot down such ideas, we must consider that even when designing our Bill of Rights, a take on the existing Declaration of Right, the framers understood that different situations call for changes to be made. In a similar light, we must consider that changes might be necessary and be open-minded to the debates that follow. Because after all, being stagnant can be the biggest weakness.

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Comparing Declaration Of Rights And Bill Of Rights. (2019, Aug 12). Retrieved December 1, 2021 , from
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