Digital History

18th Century

The Emergence of New Ideas about Personal Liberties and Constitutional Rights Next
Digital History ID 3590



During the seventeenth century, members of Parliament drew upon the Magna Carta—a charter signed by King John in 1215 that granted many rights to the English aristocracy—to rally support in their struggle against the autocratic rule of the Stuart kings. Members of Parliament viewed the charter as a constitutional check on royal power. They cited it as a legal support for their argument that there could be no laws or taxation without the consent of Parliament. Members of Parliament also used the charter to demand guarantees of trial by jury and safeguards against unfair imprisonment.

In 1628, the English Parliament presented to King Charles I the Petition of Right, which declared certain actions unconstitutional of the king, such as levying taxes without the consent of Parliament, billeting soldiers in private homes, imposing martial law, and imprisoning citizens illegally. A repudiation of the divine right of kings, the Petition of Right asserted the supremacy of law over the personal wishes of the king. Charles I failed to obey the Petition of Right, and his autocratic rule led to his execution in 1649.

The 1689 English Bill of Rights listed certain rights that were "true, ancient, and indubitable rights and liberties of the people" of England. It limited the powers of the king in such matters as taxation and keeping a standing army. In the colonies, as in England itself, Americans would celebrate English liberties as their birthright.

The social history of eighteenth-century America presents a fundamental paradox. In certain respects, colonial society was becoming more like English society. The power of royal governors was increasing, social distinctions were hardening, lawyers were paying closer attention to English law, and a more distinct social and political elite was gradually emerging. This was a result of the expansion of Atlantic commerce, the growth of the tobacco and rice economies, and especially the sale of land. To be sure, compared to the English aristocracy, the wealthiest merchants, planters, and landholders were much more limited in wealth and less stable in membership. Nevertheless, there was a growth of regional elites who intermarried, aped English manners, and dominated the highest levels of colonial government.

Yet the eighteenth century also witnessed growing claims of "English liberties" against all forms of tyranny and subservience. A pivotal jury decision in New York in 1735 helped establish the principle of freedom of the press. Opponents of New York's royal governor William Cosby had set up John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), a German immigrant, as publisher of the New York Weekly Journal in 1733. The next year, after New York's governor dismissed one of his leading opponents, Chief Justice Lewis Morris, from office, the Weekly Journal severely criticized Cosby. Because the articles attacking Cosby were published anonymously, the governor had Zenger indicted and tried for seditious libel. English law defined any criticism of a public official—true or false—as libel. But Zenger's attorney, Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741) of Philadelphia, persuaded the jury that Zenger had printed the truth and that the truth is not libelous.

In stirring words, Hamilton told the jury that "the Question before the not the Cause of a poor Printer, nor of New-York alone.... No! It may in its Consequence, affect every Freeman that lives under a British Government on the Main of America.... It is the Cause of Liberty.... Every Man who prefers Freedom to a Life of Slavery will bless and honour You, as Men who have...given us a Right...both of exposing and opposing arbitrary Power (in these Parts of the World, at least) by speaking and writing Truth."

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