The American Bill of Rights

Seminar for SAGE, Senior University Georgetown, QUEST


Home of Third Age




































What is unique in America that separates us from the many varieties of political and religious systems and tyrannies? The Bill of Rights guarantees of freedom of opinion and expression and a judicial system; both evolved through centuries in England and showed their deadly warts in the American colonies.

Bibliography and web links

History and development: From Henry I and Magna Carta to the Enlightenment

  • The American Bill of Rights includes our rights as people and our rights when accused of a crime and taken to court.
  • King Henry I and King Henry II in the 12th century divided England into districts and began systems of judges and courts to dispense justice that was fairer than ordeal by water—the accused who was bound thrown into water blessed by a priest; floating proved guilt— or fire or battle.
  • England developed a system for justice based on actions contrasted to the inquisitional system on the continent based on beliefs.
  • “Hue and cry” was the usual way to catch lawbreakers, which required all who heard a cry for help to drop everything to help the victim. It developed slowly into modern policing.
  • Habeas Corpus evolved into a weapon for presenting your case before a judge to seek justice.
  • Civil and criminal justice approaches diverged.
  • Magna Carta in 1215 laid a basis for our "inalienable rights." A reluctant King John signed it while an active Pope objected. Feisty nobles at great risk wrote it and with help from the Archbishop of Canterbury led King John to sign it; see the film Becket and A Lion in Winter.
  • The Enlightenment philosophers and for Americans John Locke developed the implications of inalienable rights, "that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted…, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed", and defined the functions of governments and churches and, therefore, why they should be separate.
  • Early colonies in America were theocracies that required religious conformity, so tyranny and persecutions were common.
  • The American Founders developed structures of governments to support human rights, while discussing whether a list of rights in constitutions was necessary; they called such a list "parchment rights."
  • Constitutional Conventions in the states created secular governments, as did the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
  • Objectors to a strong central government used the lack of a bill of rights as their weapon to block ratification and cause a rewritten constitution built on strong state governments.
  • Madison pushed the first Congress to pass the “parchment” Bill of Rights with discussion, compromise, and defeat of one of the two rights he thought essential. The Senate defeated it, but the other is our ninth Amendment, assuring that this list does not limit the inalienable rights of the people.
  • Ratification of the ten Amendments that are the Bill of Rights in 1791, and two that were not ratified — then.
  • Madison wrote his views of religious freedom in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

Articles of the Bill of Rights Yesterday and Today

  • Separation of Church and State is the key to religious freedom; see the movie Elizabeth for the tumultuous relations of Church and State in the time of Elizabeth I.
  • Rights of a free press from John Peter Zenger to modern threats to probing news seekers; see the movie All the President's Men.
  • Rights of expression are free speech, petition, and assembly. Dangers and risks of a flag “desecration” amendment; see the movie Inherit the Wind.
  • The Alien and Sedition Act led to imprisonment of a Congressman and editors, which became the first legal threat to the Bill of Rights.
  • Later rebirths of sedition acts before World War I and World War II and anti-communist hysteria and Patriot Act.
  • The right to bear arms: from militias — the best modern example is small town's volunteer fire departments — to the military to America has the highest murder rate of Western nations; provocative comparison of Canada and the U.S.; see the movie Bowling for Columbine.
  • Look who’s coming for dinner and the night; the Founders distrust of standing armies and the military led to the third Amendment.
  • The right to privacy evolved from James Otis, Jr., in the Boston colony to many rights, including abortion, gay rights, gay unions.
  • Judicial review, judicial activism, and legislative processes: founders designed the judicial to have the final word about rights and actions of the legislative and executive branches. Current feelings of some that when judges interpret rights they legislate and calls to "kill the ump."
  • Two philosophies in conflict are strict construction or a living Bill. Strict construction severely limits the Bill in meeting current situations, while a living Bill leads to decisions such as Miranda and Gideon, Topeka and Roe.
  • Two jury system and protections of citizens when charged; see the movie Gideon’s Trumpet.
  • Self incrimination, double jeopardy, bail, limited punishment, and other protections of the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth Amendments.
  • Understanding current concerns for victims and the Founders' concern for those accused, as with Gideon, and building a balance between those rights.
  • When people feel their rights are violated they often engage in civil disobedience, risking prison, to call attention to rights violations to get them corrected.

Future for bills of rights

  • Examples of a deep, world-wide hunger for inalienable rights that suggests the Enlightenment philosophers and our Founders express an essential quality and yearning of people.
  • Freedom of speech often depends on money that buys professionally prepared ads and pays for the time to air them; must other views buy freedom of speech? Is free speech no longer free?
  • The right to health care is accepted in all western countries except the U. S.; what is it? what does it mean?
  • FDR’s Second Bill of Rights
  • UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • European Union (EU) Charter of Fundamental Rights (on web note languages and select en.)
  • Does our fear and paranoia of terrorists, of al Qaeda, and a world that is confused and violent lead us to give up our human rights? Competing religions and human freedoms and demands.

The films listed at the end of several items are useful for two reasons: they provide historic information that is largely accurate, and second being films they involve us in the feelings and actions, just as the Founders were deeply involved in persecutions, quartering soldiers, unreasonable searches, and other actions that led directly to the Bill of Rights.

Copyright © 2009 John F. Yeaman