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A comparison of British rights and the American Bill of Rights

William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England was an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1765, and continues to be referenced by the US Supreme Court as the definitive pre-Revolutionary War description of common law. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the Commentaries made a huge impression on Americans. Blackstone said that individuals had absolute rights “inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation. . .” He considered those absolute rights to be:

1) “the right of personal security

2) the right of personal liberty

3) the right of private property”.

In Britain, centuries of struggle had occurred in the defence of these rights, and they were affirmed in the British Constitution, which includes Magna Carta, the Declaration of Right and Bill of Rights, the Coronation Oath, the Act of Settlement, and Common Law.

In 1791, having won their independence from Britain and having established their constitution, Americans decided it was essential to spell out the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property in amendments to the U.S. Constitution since even in the space of a few years elected representatives had proved remarkably forgetful of them.

We have never seen a comparison of the rights articulated and protected by the British Constitution between the 9th and 18th centuries with those protected by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. There must be a chart somewhere, but we haven't found it so we created one. It’s quite fascinating. Below we reprint the US Bill of Rights. The rights protected by the British Constitution are shown in italics.

The U.S. Bill of Rights:

1st Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

2nd Amendment
A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

3rd Amendment
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

4th Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

5th Amendment
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

6th Amendment
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining Witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.

7th Amendment
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

8th Amendment
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

9th Amendment
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

10th Amendment
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The genius of the US Constitution is particularly evident in the 9th and 10th amendments and in its limitation and balancing of the powers of government.

To articulate and protect these rights over the centuries in Britain and in America required imagination and courage. It was never enough to have these rights in writing. Men and women had to defend them with all their determination, and that task continues today.

(This post has been slightly revised.)

Update: Reader J. Fred Decker enquires whether this suggests that the right to bear arms was a collective or, as he believes, an individual right. It seems clear that according to Blackstone it is an individual right corresponding to the individual's absolute right to personal security and, consequently, to her right to defend herself with arms if necessary.

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