In 1556, John Ponet (1516-1556), an English writer, pointedly warned Mary, Queen of Scots, that she ruled over "a bodie of free men and not of bondemen" and that she could not "give or sell them as slaves and bondemen." The idea that the English, unlike their counterparts on the European continent, had more rights, greater security of property, and a higher standard of living than those who wore "wooden shoes" was already a common viewpoint in the sixteenth century. But the concept of "English liberties" took on added resonances as a result of the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century.
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. And members of Parliament 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 unconstitutional certain actions 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.
In 1689, seven years after the publication of a volume on English liberties by Henry Care (1646-1688), Parliament presented King William III and Queen Mary a declaration that became known as the Bill of Rights. 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 Constitution of our English Government (the best in the World) is no Arbitrary Tyranny like the Turkish Grand Seignior's, or the French Kings, whose Wills (or rather Lusts) dispose of the Lives and Fortunes of their unhappy Subjects; Nor an Oligarchy where the great men (like Fish in the Ocean) prey upon, and live by devouring the lesser at their pleasure. Nor yet a Democracy or popular State, much less an Anarchy, where all confusedly are hail fellows well met, but a most excellently mixt or qualified Monarchy, where the King is vested with large Prerogatives sufficient to support Majesty; and restrained only from power of doing himself and his people harm, which would be contrary to the very end of all Government, and is properly rather weakness than power.... The Commonality too, so Guarded in their Persons and Properties by the fence of Law, and renders them Freemen, not Slaves.
In France and other Nations the mere Will of the Prince is Law, his Word takes off any...Head, imposes Taxes, or seizes any man's Estate, when, how, and as often as he wishes, and if one is Accused or but so much as suspected of any Crime, he may either presently Execute him, or Banish or Imprison him at pleasure.... Nay if there be no Witnesses, yet he may be put to the Rack, the Tortures whereof make many an Innocent Person confess himself guilty....
But in England, the Law is both the Measure and the Bond of every Subject's Duty and Allegiance, each man having a fixed Fundamental Right born with him as to the Freedom of his Person and Property in his Estate, which he cannot be deprived of, but either by his consent, or some Crime for which the Law has Imposed such a Penalty as Forfeiture.