Impact Of The Constitution Essays

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor
Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution

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Sections:Magna Carta Comes to America | King John in History and Memory | Rebellion and the Great Charter | Lincoln Magna Carta | Confirmations by Kings and Parliament | Interpreting the Rule of Law | Rights of Englishmen in British America | No Taxation Without Representation | Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution | Due Process of Law | Trial by Jury | Writ of Habeas Corpus | Executive Power | Magna Carta in Culture

Proposed Articles of Amendment to the Federal Constitution [Bill of Rights], September 14, 1789. [James Madison’s personal copy of printed broadside]. New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1789. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (035)

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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State Constitutions

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)

Pennsylvania’s Constitution

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.”

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[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)

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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Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Style, September 8–12, 1787. Printed document with annotations by George Washington and Convention Secretary William Jackson. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (068, 068.00.01)

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Home | Exhibition Overview | Exhibition Items | Public Programs | Learn More | Multimedia | Acknowledgments

Sections:Magna Carta Comes to America | King John in History and Memory | Rebellion and the Great Charter | Lincoln Magna Carta | Confirmations by Kings and Parliament | Interpreting the Rule of Law | Rights of Englishmen in British America | No Taxation Without Representation | Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution | Due Process of Law | Trial by Jury | Writ of Habeas Corpus | Executive Power | Magna Carta in Culture

[Originally aired September 2012]

225 years ago, on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed their names to the final draft of the United States Constitution.  Less than a year later, on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify it, it became, as it states in its own Article VI, the supreme law of the land. 

All these years later, few of us realize how cantankerous were the arguments that brought this document into being-- a first for a nation, a charter that created a country.  Well, actually, it’s the second version of the charter that created the United States.  Call it USA version 2.0. 

That’s because the country was actually created by the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781.  By those articles, the thirteen British colonies-- now referring to themselves as “states” to signify their autonomy-- bound themselves in “perpetual union” with each other.  The problem was, their confederation, which lacked a strong central government, didn’t function very well.  So in the hot summer of 1787, in the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia, delegates from all of the states gathered to formulate the second version of an operating system for their new country.

That’s what the Constitution really is-- an operating system.  It lays out how the government will operate, and it leaves it to that government to run the country.  One of the reasons it has worked-- surprisingly well for an experiment-- for over 200 years is because it is an operating system.  The laws and regulations created under its authority are, well, apps.  The founding fathers were way ahead of time in their mode of thinking.

There is only one crime defined in the Constitution, that of treason, and it is narrowly defined.  Other crimes, and laws and regulations that tell us what must be in a product, or what a civil servant will be paid, or how old you must be to work in a factory,   and customs that have been incorporated into law, such as what constitutes a marriage, an adoption, or a divorce, or that you must drive on the right side of the road or speak English in official matters -- all of these are applications passed by the government operating as prescribed in the Constitution. 

Under Article VI, they become the law of the land, but they don’t become part of the Constitution.  You don’t stick your apps into the operating system. 

We tried that once, with Prohibition. It didn’t work, and was repealed. 

What the US has done, over the 225 years since the Constitution was drafted, was de-bug it.  They figured out early, for example, that the President and Vice president had to be on the same ballot.  That resulted in the Twelfth Amendment. 

They’ve done a rather small amount of debugging ever since.  They’ve moved the inauguration day forward as transportation got faster; they’ve provided for presidential succession if there is no vice president, or if the president is incapacitated.  They’ve made it possible for the people to elect their senators directly, rather than-- as had previously been the case-- by the state legislatures. The senators still represent the states as a whole, but the people have a more direct voice in their selection, and the senators are, for that reason, more responsive to the people.  

About half the amendments to the Constitution de-bug it. The rest clarify and expand the rights of the people who make up the United States. That’s right-- except for the 18th Amendment, prohibition, those amendments that didn’t debug the system have expanded individual rights. 

There had been a battle among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention as to whether there should be a bill of rights contained in it.  In the end, the purity of its design as an O.S. prevailed, but with the proviso that a Bill of Rights, in the form of a series of amendments, would be passed immediately. And so they were, passed by the first Congress, and ratified quickly by the states. 

These amendments guarantee, among other things, the right to freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. They grant freedom from self-incrimination in court and the right to a trial by jury.  They include the controversial second amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. 

One of the greatest arguments against having a bill of rights was that some feared that if rights were enumerated, sooner or later some elected officials might come around and say, “That’s it, that’s all the rights you have.” For that reason, the ninth amendment is perhaps one of the most important, although people don’t really think about it. It reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  What that means   is that just because a right isn’t listed   doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. 

The Tenth Amendment covers similar turf.  It reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

That’s how it is that rights that no one ever suspected, 225 years ago, might exist-- such as a right to privacy, perhaps even the right to marry whomever one chooses-- fall under these amendments. 

After the Civil War, the country, in adopting the 14th Amendment, created what might be termed USA version 2.5.  It prohibited the states from infringing the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  Again, an expansion of rights. 

Over the years, Constitutional amendments have expanded rights to include the right to vote-- first extended to black males, then to all women, then to people between the ages of 18 and 21 who until then, had been eligible to serve in the armed forces, but not to vote on those who would send them to war.  An Amendment made it illegal to charge a tax at the polls in order to vote.  This expansion of rights is one of the things that makes America the country that it is.  

How could a group of men so divergent in views-- southern plantation owners, northern manufacturers, city shop-keepers and farmers, the educated and the self-educated-- how did these men overcome their prejudices and self-interest to ratify this document-- principally drafted by James Madison-- into a Constitution that has lasted this long?  Some of them became bitter enemies in the process, but they didn’t let it stop them from coming together to create this truly unique system of government. 

In the end, the whole turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts, something for which we should all be grateful, and think about as we celebrate the fact that the US Constitution has been around now for 225 years.

[Originally aired September 2012]

Essayist Ellen Kozak on the 225th birthday of the U.S. Constitution

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