A History of the Bill of Rights and other Human Rights Documents
We present a summary of the history of human rights documents including the Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, Declaration of Rights and Man, and English Bill of Rights.
Bills of Rights in The West
The U.S Bill of Rights 1789, of which most Americans are familiar, was predated by other statements on human rights in the west. These humans rights documents include (but aren’t limited to) the Athenian Constitution 600 BC, the Charter of Liberties 1100, the Magna Carta 1215, the English Petition of Right 1628 and Bill of Rights 1689, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1789.
Other early humans rights documents (not discussed below) include “the Poor Laws” (a type of early welfare) of different eras, namely the Medieval Poor Laws of the 1300’s and the Tudor poor laws the Vagabonds and Beggars Act 1495 and Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597. There were also trade laws that protected merchants like the “Lex mercatoria“.
Below is the story of the history of Human Rights and the impact of the U.S. Bill of Rights and other such declarations on western liberal Democracy and other world governments.
Liberalization in and Before the Age of Reason
The wide impact of those who stood for liberty against the powerful interests of their time and stood together behind the ideas of political philosophers while demanding their rights helped lay the foundation of the world in which we live today. A large part of the western world enjoys very similar liberties to those laid out in the documents noted above and detailed below.
Concepts that we think of as central to our lives lay in the history of Human Rights and the Bill of Rights. These are ideas such as freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, the right to own land, the right to representation, and giving consent to be governed.
Natural Rights also include the right not to have powerful people such as the Baron, Church, King, elected government, or any special interest group enslave people. Today, in the west, the government is prohibited from using debt, religion, or force to take your spouse, child, land, or money without due process of law. This was not always the case.
TIP: See List of amendments to the United States Constitution. The 13th, passed 1865, finally abolished slavery, and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. To have natural rights confirmed by a government established by consent that respects the rights of all colors and genders (note the 19th and 24th) is BRAND NEW historically speaking.
Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, and American Government. (Ps. this guy: Tom Richey).
Because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. – John Locke’s Second Treaty of Government, Page 4.
FACT: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, first codified in 1789 in France, is a foundational document of both liberalism and human rights. Freemasonry (an ideology favored by radical liberals in America and France) played an important role in the revolution. Originally largely apolitical, Freemasonry was radicalized in the late 18th century through the introduction of higher grades which emphasized themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity (the basic principles of liberalism). Virtually every major participant in the Revolution was a Freemason; these themes became the widely recognized slogan of the revolution. This can help explain the Masonic symbolism in America as well.
TIP: The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights 1950 and Fundamental Freedoms expands on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
FACT: The Declaration of Independence contains Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It echoes John Locke’s “Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property.” John Locke himself was part of the effort to pass the English Bill of Rights 1689. This document also contains much of his language.
TIP: There is no one way to understand Liberty. Most political factions arise from either differing views on Liberty (types of liberalism like classical liberalism, American libertarianism, and social liberalism) or, opposition to it (called conservative).
A Short History of Human Rights
Basic Human Rights
Some basic human rights have been won over the years and are now accepted as “natural rights“. Before we look at history lets look at a pretty conclusive summary of what we today consider Human Rights.
This is from the Human Rights Act, a modern rights act passed in the UK in 1998. The conservatives in the UK think this goes too far and want to replace it, see social liberalism vs. classic liberalism, vs. conservatism for the ideology the current political factions in most Western countries including America and the UK are based on.
A List of Basic Natural Human Rights from the U.K.’s Human Rights Act
– Article 2: Right to life
– Article 3: Prohibition of torture
– Article 4: Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
– Article 5: Right to liberty and security
– Article 6: Right to a fair trial
– Article 7: No punishment without law
– Article 8: Right to respect for private and family life
– Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
– Article 10: Freedom of expression
– Article 11: Freedom of assembly and association
– Article 12: Right to marry
– Article 14: Prohibition of discrimination
– Protocol No. 1
– Article 1 : Protection of property
– Article 2 : Right to education
– Article 3 : Right to free elections
– Protocol No. 6
– Article 1 : Abolition of the death penalty
– Article 2 : Death penalty in time of war
NOTE: Almost all the above rights come from the Enlightenment, and often directly from John Locke. Other rights, favored by social liberals and not always by conservatives include the right to healthcare, higher education, food, housing, and other rights to welfare.
A Timeline of Documents Such as the Bill of Rights
Below I will review a few key documents that lead up to the United State’s Bill of Rights in 1789 (the world’s oldest existing liberal governing document). Then we’ll quickly go over the documents that come after that.
TIP: We notably skip the history of Rome, Russia, the Middle East, and the Far East to keep the information in manageable and useful. The focus is on Europe from the Angles to England starting in 400 AD, but first a word from Athens 600 BC.
The Athenian Constitution 600 BC
The Athenian Aristotle’s recount of the Athenian Constitution tells the story of Solon, a poet, merchant, and upper-middle-class politician who freed Athen’s from the oligarchical rule of “barons” (land owners) who had enslaved the people with debt. Before Solon, “no polis had ever dared to give all its citizens equal political rights, regardless of their descent, wealth, social standing, education, personal qualities, and any other factors that usually determined status in a community.”
Below is an excerpt from the Athenian Constitution that describes how people lived before and after Solon.
“After this event [events before Solon] there was contention for a long time between the upper classes and the populace. Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich. They were known as Pelatae and also as Hectemori because they cultivated the lands of the rich at the rent thus indicated. The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent they were liable to be hauled into slavery, and their children with them. All loans secured upon the debtor’s person, a custom which prevailed until the time of Solon, who was the first to appear as the champion of the people. But the hardest and bitterest part of the constitution in the eyes of the masses was their state of serfdom. Not but what they were also discontented with every other feature of their lot; for, to speak generally, they had no part nor share in anything.
As soon as he was at the head of affairs, Solon liberated the people once and for all, by prohibiting all loans on the security of the debtor’s person: and in addition, he made laws by which he canceled all debts, public and private. This measure is commonly called the Seisachtheia [= removal of burdens], since thereby the people had their loads removed from them.” – The Athenian Constitution
The Rights: The Right to Liberty, it became illegal to enslave yourself to debt. Athens under Solon enjoyed a system of free trade, so the right to participate in a regulated free-market. The Right to Democracy. All voting eligible Athenians participated in Democracy, they voted directly on laws (something we don’t do in the United States today). Male citizens had equal political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in the political arena.
Famous Greeks Series Solon
An Account of Sub-Roman Europe 400 – 1100
The rest of our examples of Bills of Rights will focus on Europe after the fall of Rome. We are trying to trace a line between the Anglo-Saxons (English), Franks and Normans (French), etc. and liberty. The Athens example above is used to show that human rights go far beyond the times in which the English Crown was established.
England gets its name from the Angles, a Germanic people of Europe, who banded together with the Saxons (and Jutes) and colonized Britain (the Anglo-Saxons don’t kill the native British, they mix with them).
Pagan Germanic tribes cross the sea to colonize sub-Roman Britain around 500 BC. Shortly after, Rome falls to groups including the Gauls, Visigoths and Vandals. The Anglo-Saxons living in Britain convert to Christianity.
Over the next thousand years the European tribes that would later become the Danish, French, Spanish, and English began to war and play their “Games of Thrones.” They fended off attacks from Norse Vikings and other tribes of the world. This brings us to 1100 where the native Anglo-Saxons were not happy with their new King Henry I of England.
Anglo-Saxon – The History of English (1/10). The Anglo-Saxons cross the sea and colonize Britain in the 400’s, remind you of anything?
TIP: See the story of King Arthur for more on Sub-Roman Britain and its Kings.
The Charter of Liberties 1100
In 1100, in the High-Middle Ages, the Charter of Liberties was a written proclamation by Henry I of England, issued upon his accession to the throne. It was meant to extend human rights to the Barons (rich land owners) who had been rebelling due to the high taxes and other abuses of his brother and father William I (William the Conqueror).
This Charter speaks of past deals between the barons and kings, so we can assume that there were similar rights in place before the Norman invasion of 1066.
Regardless of past rights, or the Charter itself, the rights in the document were ignored until just before the Magna Carta. In 1213 Archbishop Langton reminded the nobles that their liberties had been guaranteed over a century prior in Henry I’s Charter of Liberties.
Despite the charter not being upheld, it is important as a verifiable historical example that human rights were extended to the non-aristocracy in Europe after the fall of Rome.
King Henry I (1068-1135).
The Rights: The rights are all for Barons, but highlights include: limiting estate taxes, the King not telling people who they can marry, and not being able to pay to get out of breaking the law. The document essentially calls for peace between the King and landowners.
Magna Carta (the “Great Charter”) 1215
The Magna Carta is a charter agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. It was meant to make peace between the King and rebel Barons, but the story also involves the church. The charter established common ground for the aristocracy, oligarchy, and theocracy, but not exactly for the people; that comes later. The Magna Carta checked King John’s abuses of power against the barons, Church officials, merchants and other “free men,” who together made up about 25% of England’s population. Magna Carta virtually ignored the remaining 75% of the population.).
This document protects barons, not all citizens. The Magna Carta is a true precursor to the English Bill of Rights. Some claim this goes back to documents before the Charter of Liberties; some claim it extends past the Glorious Revolution and into the French and American Revolutions. History has shown that, while the underlying concepts are an inspiration, they are substantially different as the later documents in the Age of Enlightenment extend rights to “all men” like the Athenians did, not just to barons.
The Magna Carta was amended with many articles from 1215 to the early 1600’s when the next recorded milestone in the development of human rights was the Petition of Right (by the important Edward Coke), produced in 1628 by the English Parliament and sent to Charles I as a statement of civil liberties.
The Magna Carta remained important throughout most of English history. The long-standing debate of “the Divine Right of Kings” (see Charles I of England and the House of Stuart) “the Social Contract and Consent to be Governed” (see John Locke) was historically had around the Magna Carta (especially in the 1600’s when Charles and Locke lived).
The Magna Carta Explained: Global History Review.
The Rights: The rights focused on legal rights, rights for trade, and rights for not being victimized by the king. “No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [property was taken] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimized, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. Some have interpreted this provision to mean that Magna Carta guaranteed to free men the right to a trial by jury. However, the idea of a jury trial as we would recognize it today had not yet developed by 1215. The Magna Carta is impressive. It lays out the foundation for rights; the original 63 clauses are rather mundane. Two of the more important sections are cited below in the following video.
The Story of Magna Carta.
“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
MYTH: It is a political myth of Magna Carta and its protection of liberties persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century.
FACT: Magna Carta originated as an unsuccessful attempt to achieve peace between royalist and rebel factions in 1215, as part of the events leading to the outbreak of the First Barons’ War. A Baron is a wealthy landowner; most of European history is simply oligarchies versus aristocracy. There were no promised human rights for the people until the late 1600’s to early 1700’s, although this doesn’t mean the average person’s rights were always abused.
The English Petition of Right 1628
Petition of Right, 1628, a statement of civil liberties sent by the English Parliament to Charles I. Refusal by Parliament to finance the king’s unpopular foreign policy had caused his government to exact forced loans and to quarter troops in subjects’ houses as an economy measure.
The Petition of Right, initiated by Sir Edward Coke, was based upon earlier statutes and charters and asserted four principles: no taxes may be levied without consent of Parliament; no subject may be imprisoned without cause shown (reaffirmation of the right of habeas corpus); no soldiers may be quartered upon the citizenry; martial law may not be used in time of peace.
Charles soon began taxing without representing the people or respecting their liberties. This affront would result in Charles’ beheading, but more importantly the English Bill of Rights 1689 and the limiting of the power of English Monarchs.
The Rights: The Petition of Rights is notable as it protects the rights of citizens and demands “consent” to be governed and taxed. It also protected some legal rights like habeas corpus.
7th June 1628: Petition of Right ratified by King Charles I.
FACT: The Petition of Right is one of the first statements of the idea of “no taxation without representation of the people”.
The English Bill of Rights 1689
The Glorious Revolution of 1688, a revolution for which the Father of Liberalism John Locke provided much of the ideological backbone, resulted in King James II abdicating his throne and feeling the country.
The revolution produced the English Bill of Rights, an act that the Parliament of England passed on December 16, 1689.
This document marks the first true modern liberal document of human rights. It goes far beyond just protecting barons in exchange for a Monarchs ability to tax.
You can learn more about the English Bill of Rights in the video below:
The rights: The Bill of Rights together with the Act of Settlement in 1701 help establish parliamentary sovereignty, which gave the legislative body of Parliament absolute sovereignty making it supreme over all other government institutions (it gave parliament more power than the monarchy). The Bill of Rights also generally shrunk many of the powers of the crown, denoted that new taxes had to be passed with consent of parliament, and protected the rights of citizens (including the right to bear arms, property rights, legal rights, and rights against a standing army. See a full list of provisions.
The English Bill of Rights Project.
France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1789
The concepts in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen come from the philosophical and political duties of the Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by the Genevan philosopher Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the Baron de Montesquieu.
France is the last out of France, England, and America, to fully establish a Government based on the principles of Liberty (this is especially true considering the reign of the liberal dictator Napoleon).
The Rights: The declaration defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. This includes the idea that all men are born and remain free, and are equal in rights. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression. The rights favor the non-aggression principle, rights related to fair trials, and rights related to speech, press, and religion. The Declaration also asserted the principles of popular sovereignty. This was in contrast to the divine right of kings that characterized the French monarchy. It called for social equality among citizens, “All the citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.” The special rights of the nobility and clergy were eliminated.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (French Revolution: Part 4).
FACT: The Declaration, together with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
FACT: After The March on Versailles on 5 October 1789, women presented the Women’s Petition to the National Assembly in which they proposed a decree giving women equal rights. These rights were not adopted, but it marks one of the earliest feminists efforts in modern history.
The U.S. Bill of Rights 1789
The United States Bill of Rights 1789, preceded by the Declaration of Independence 1776 and the Constitution 1787 which the Bill of Rights Amends, is the oldest liberal governing document (as the other earlier bills have since been replaced).
The document draw from Locke and the other enlightened Europeans, the ancient laws of Rome and Athens, the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and even earlier U.S. state-based documents (specifically Virginia). The Bill of Rights, coming only moths after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, also draws influence from that document (and the general sentiment leading up to it in France).
The Bill of rights is a statement of liberty and justice and places restrictions on government, while the constitution deals with the separation of powers and structure of government. The Declaration of Independence is an early statement that mirrors these ideas includes the following Locke-inspired phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Rights: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. The right to a fair trial and other similar legal rights.
A 3-minute guide to the Bill of Rights – Belinda Stutzman.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a human rights bill by the United Nations which was enacted in 1948 following WWII.
Other statements of rights had applied only to specific countries, the Universal Declaration applies to all UN nations and can be seen as a guidepost for what is expected not only from countries within the UN but also for countries outside of it.
The Rights: The right to life, liberty, and security of person. The right to not able made a slave or subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The right to fair trial, and other similar legal rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The UK Human Rights Act 1998
The Human Rights Act of 1998 is the second bill of rights of sorts for the UK. If the older Bills are liberal documents, we can say the Human Rights Act goes one step further and is a liberal social document, and it is currently criticized as such. The Conservative party in Britain wants to replace it with the Proposed British Bill of Rights.
Quotes from Conservatives in the UK include a sentiment any American will find familiar:
“The time had come to liberate the nation from the avalanche of political correctness, costly litigation, feeble justice, and culture of compensation running riot in Britain today and warning that the politically correct regime ushered in by Labour’s enthusiastic adoption of human rights legislation has turned the age-old principle of fairness on its head”.
“The schoolboy arsonist allowed back into the classroom because enforcing discipline apparently denied his right to education; the convicted rapist given £4000 compensation because his second appeal was delayed; the burglar given taxpayers’ money to sue the man whose house he broke into; travelers who thumb their nose at the law allowed to stay on green belt sites they have occupied in defiance of planning laws”.
Human Rights in the United Kingdom: Where Now?
Conclusion – Human Rights in 2016
Today some nations have taken the ideas laid out by England, America, and France further than those countries have themselves. We stand at a point where we can move forward, or we can move back.
No one agrees on what liberty means, and striking the right balance was then and is today, not a simple matter. Do we move forward with healthcare, education, and safety-net social liberal rights, or do we return to a more classic liberal set of rights focused more on individual liberty? Centuries of bloodshed can be found in our past, and our rights are hard-won, the nature of liberty is such that rights can be taken away again, not just by a Kings, but by the tyranny of those who use democracy as a pathway for totalitarianism. How do we ensure life, liberty, and the other principles of liberalism in the 21st century? The answer isn’t clear, but knowing our past can help.
The History of Liberalism. The first few seconds of this well-done video make it clear, we all agree on Liberty, but we still don’t exactly agree on a definition. This is ironically and especially true from the very people who brought the concepts of liberty to the world.
TIP: Learn more about the Enlightenment thinkers and the birth of Liberalism.
- What are human rights?
- Magna Carta and human rights
- Magna Carta
- French Revolution
- Declaration of Independence
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
- The Athenian Constitution
- Athenian Democracy
- Meeting at Runnymede The Story of King John and Magna Carta
- Petition of Right
- Petition of Rights
- What Is the English Bill Of Rights? – Definition, Summary & History
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
- Women’s Petition to the National Assembly
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Human Rights Act 1998
- Should we scrap the Human Rights Act?
- How Human Rights Act Is Being Used