July 3, 2009

ALL THEY EVER WANTED WAS THEIR RIGHTS AS ENGLISHMEN:

Independence, British-Style (ADAM FREEDMAN, 7/03/09, NY Times)

The English Bill of Rights, like the Declaration, emerged at a moment of crisis. In 1689, the exiled James was raising an army to recapture the throne (he ultimately failed). To keep parliamentary opinion firmly against the old king, the Bill of Rights sets forth a long list of grievances against the crown.

The Declaration follows the same template and, in many cases, recites the same grievances. The very first complaint listed in the 1689 document, that the king had suspended laws and the execution of laws “without consent of Parliament,” is closely echoed in the Declaration’s opening gripe, that the king had “refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Likewise, the Declaration’s defense of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” conveyed nothing more radical than established British law. Much ink has been spilt arguing that those concepts came from the English philosopher John Locke, or perhaps the Scottish enlightenment, or even American Indian tradition. In reality, the drafters were probably inspired by dowdy old common law, which had long before recognized life, liberty and property as an Englishman’s “absolute rights.” Even Jefferson’s reference to “the pursuit of happiness” was founded on British constitutional principles.

And yet, the Declaration of Independence makes no explicit claim to British pedigree, but appeals to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and “the supreme judge of the world” to support its argument. That turned what otherwise would have been a mere restatement of English law into an invitation to the world to recognize certain “self-evident” truths about equality and freedom.


The world would be a better place today had the King granted them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2009 7:34 AM
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