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LIBERTY! THE TIMELINE

1787 - 1799

Image shows the first words of the U.S. Constitution – We the People

The U.S. Constitution begins "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,
do ordain and establish this Constitution. . ."

Photo: DNY59@istockphoto.com

BUILDING ON BRITISH RIGHTS
TO ESTABLISH
THE FRAMEWORK OF FREEDOM

After winning a long, hard war, Americans create the U.S. Constitution on what they like best about the British Constitution. Brits in Britain expand the fight to end the slave trade.

English oak tree in summer field

While sitting under an English oak in 1787, three young men decide they are going to end the slave trade in British colonies. They are William Pitt the Younger, Britain's youngest Prime Minister, and his friends William Grenville, and William Wilberforce. Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, a young Cambridge grad, have already joined the fight against slavery with Lord and Lady Middleton.

Photo: Cheshire Government

1787 - 1789 THE FIGHT TO END THE SLAVE TRADE GOES INTO HIGH GEAR

Granville Sharp is indefatigable.  He has resigned his government job in protest against Britain waging war in America.  He has won the Common Law ruling that slavery is illegal in England. On May 22, 1787, he and eleven Christians – Quakers and Anglicans – gather at a printing shop in London, Now he becomes Chair of the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade.

Working with him is Thomas Clarkson, just twenty-five. (See 1785) and a small, happy man (“a perfect shrimp who swelled into a whale,” Boswell remarks in his diary) called William ‘Wilber’ Wilberforce.  Wilber is independently wealthy and a Member of Parliament for the largest constituency in England. He has a rapier wit. In 1785 he has a Christian conversion experience. When he does, he wonders whether he should stay in Parliament, where evangelical Christians are exposed to contempt and ridicule. He thinks about resigning, but becomes convinced that he must stay, and end slavery. Dying, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, writes his last letter to Wilber, urging him to take on the struggle.

Meeting in London and at Teston, Kent, these men, along with renowned writer Hannah More and Charles Middleton (later Lord Barham) pledge to launch a national campaign. Clarkson translates his essay into English, publishes it, and travels 35,000 miles, establishing local anti-slave societies in cities and towns across Britain. Organising locally in the country will prove crucial to ending the slavery, as will revolts by slaves in the colonies.

Affirming that they are accountable to Christ, the abolitionists take on the richest and most powerful men in Britain.

Africa on boy's face

To read about the the Fellowship that abolished the slave trade and slavery.

1787 - 1791 BUILDING FROM THE PEOPLE UP

Just before the Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia, John Adams rushes to publish his ideas about constitutional government.  He envisions a republic based on that “most stupendous fabric of human invention” – the British Constitution.

Like their British forbears, Americans are keen to protect themselves from arbitrary, unlimited government. They aim to build a limited government that is founded on the consent of the people and that is designed so governmental abuse of power is prevented. Brits had established a Parliament and an independent judiciary to balance the power of the executive monarchy and preserve ancient liberties. In a superb variation of these ideas, Americans create three branches of government that will check and balance each other – a strong, elected executive, an elected legislature with two chambers, and an independent judiciary which delivers justice under law. Under the U.S. Constitution:

  • Separation of powers gives each of the three branches of government distinct powers and responsibilities.  The power of each branch is checked and balanced by the power of the other branches.

  • Federalism divides the powers of government between the national government and the states.
  • The powers of national and state governments are limited.  They can do only what the Constitution allows them to do.

In 1791 Americans amend their Constitution, adding a Bill of Rights that has been called the greatest protection of human freedom in the history of the world. Brits in Britain fought for and gained many of the rights and freedoms that are enshrined in the American Bill of Rights. Those rights and freedoms that are in the British Constitution appear in red

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.

       Seventh 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 re-examined 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.

Statue of America soldiers struggling to lift flag at Iwo Jima, World War II

Creating the U.S. Constitution was a messy business, an improvisation on the edge of catastrophe. Due to the excellence of its construction the American Constitution survived, and is older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Spanish and Greek constitutions combined.

Photo: JLPhotographix@istockphoto.com

1790s ALEXANDER HAMILTON BUILDS BRILLIANT FREE MARKET NATION

Born illegitimate on the British island of Nevis, an orphan after his father abandons him and his mother dies, Hamilton goes to work at the age of thirteen in a counting house on St. Croix, and makes a success of it, learning how to make money and lead men. He also learns to hate and despise slavery, and trusts it will be doomed by modern economies.

At seventeen his genius take him to New York and King’s College (now Columbia University) where he throws himself into his studies and the cause of the American Revolution, writing eloquently and raising an artillery company of students. He is brave and efficient in the fighting around the Battle of Long Island, and becomes Washington’s right-hand man during the years of war, winning renown at Yorktown.

After the war he falls in love, marries happily, founds the first American bank, the Bank of New York in 1784, and joins the support for a Constitutional Convention. Throughout the hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, Hamilton, who had seen firsthand how a weak government had almost lost the Revolution, argues for a strong central government and president, and for the abolition of slavery.

The Constitution contains checks and balances to power that he did not support, but he campaigns for its ratification, cowriting with John Jay the 85 eloquent Federalist Papers. When the Constitution is passed, and a new government is formed, Hamilton joins George Washington’s Administration as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He establishes the new United States of America as a society based on the principles of Adam Smith with free markets of money, land, and energy, protected by law and nurtured by the public credit, stock and commodity exchanges. In 1791, Hamilton creates the Bank of the United States, the forerunner of the Federal Reserve.

One of Hamilton's core philosophical beliefs: “In matters of industry, human enterprise ought doubtless to be left free in the main, not fettered by too much regulation, but practical politicians know that it may be beneficially stimulated by prudent aids and encouragements on the part of government.” Hamilton would doubtless emphasise the words free in the main and prudent. He was famous for observing, "The nation that can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one."

1791 THOMAS PAINE FIGHTS WITH HIS PEN FOR THE RIGHTS OF MAN

Not everyone likes Thomas Paine. He was once described as something "between Pig and Puppy." Back in Britain in the 1790s, Paine publishes the Rights of Man. He argues that the “illuminating and divine principle of the equal rights of man. . .has its origin from the Maker of man.” 

Paine believes that all too often it is governments that cause the miseries of their people. His observation that public officials avoid taking blame for the mistakes they commit while taking credit for the good they have done nothing to create, may strike a chord.  

History convinces Paine that monarchies and dictatorships are militaristic and that persecution is always the feature of a state religion established by law. He advises the Brits to scuttle both titles and Parliament, hold a national convention, and create a republic free of a state church. He adamantly declares, “To say that any people are not fit for freedom is to make poverty their choice.”

He describes high taxes as an unfair burden on the poor, and suggests a form of social security for the aged that would equal the interest they would have received from the money they paid in taxes.  Some of his suggestions point to a welfare state, and destroy the rights he wants to protect, but his passionate thinking is always provocative.

1778 - 1793 CATHOLIC RELIEF ACTS PASSED

The first Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1778; subject to an oath against Stuart claims to the throne and the civil jurisdiction of the Pope, it allowed Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland to own property, inherit land, and join the army. Reaction against this led to riots in Scotland in 1779 and to the Gordon Riots in London in 1780.

The Irish Parliament passed similar Acts between 1778 and 1793. Roman Catholics began to gain access to many professions from which they had been excluded. However most remained excluded from voting. Irish desires for complete independence would lead to an Irish uprising in 1798.

1792 MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT FIGHTS WITH HER PEN FOR THE EDUCATION OF WOMEN

The daughter of a Spitalfields handkerchief weaver, Mary Wollstonecraft manages to acquire an education, and open a school for girls. She leaves the school to nurse a friend dying of TB, takes a job as a governess to survive, and writes a novel. Joseph Johnson invites her to work for his journal "Analytical Review", which brings her into contact with radical thinkers. She writes the Vindication of the Rights of Men, where she criticises slavery and the treatment of the poor.

Mary Wollstonecraft's experience of unmarried motherhood bears witness to mistaken passion, self-induced helplessness, and heroism. In her Vindication of the Rights of Women, she advocates education for women, arguing that the rights of men and the rights of women are one and the same.

Four years later she and William Godwin fall in love, and marry. She is 38 when she dies after giving birth to Mary Shelley. Her ideas will inspire 20th century women rights campaigners.

1792 CHARLES JAMES FOX PASSES LIBEL LAW THAT RESTRICTS GOVERNMENT'S ABILITY TO PUNISH SEDITIOUS LIBEL

Seditious libel is the 'crime' of criticizing the government. Governments deprive the people of their freedom of speech to prevent being criticized. Despite the fact that he is libelled and caricatured more than any other man in public life, the witty, exotic, and scandalous Charles James Fox pushes a liberal Libel Act through Parliament that allows a defendant to plead the truth as a defence and to be judged by a jury of his peers.

1794 HARDY DEFENDS FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION; JURY REFUSES TO CONVICT HIM

Thomas Hardy (the shoemaker, not the novelist) decides that the Members of the House of Commons do not represent working men and that Parliament’s foreign policy is contributing to his economic distress. In 1792 Hardy and seven other men establish the London Corresponding Society to reform Parliament. Two of their members are arrested and sentenced to 14 years, but Hardy bravely continues, in passionate defence of freedom of association. Shortly, he finds himself in the Tower of London on trial for high treason. 

The Government mounts a propaganda campaign against him. A mob attacks his house, and his pregnant wife tries to escape through a window. In the shock, the child is stillborn, and Mrs. Hardy dies.

Hardy's trial begins.  The prosecution tries to make the case that he and the London Corresponding Society are encouraging people to disobey King and Parliament, but the jury will have none of it, and frees Hardy and his co-defendants. This is a great breakthrough for freedom of association.

1797 WELSH MEN AND WOMEN DEFEND BRITAIN FROM FRENCH

On February 22, the French land 1400 men at Fishguard, expecting that the people of the British Isles sympathise with the recent French Revolution and will join them in marching against their government.

They are surprised to find members of the Welsh homeguard, under Lieutenant Colonel Knox, fiercely defending the Island of Britain, aided by a host of women. Jemima Nicholas, wielding a pitchfork, is supposed to have "persuaded" 12 French troops to surrender. A blacksmith by trade, she carries two recalcitrant French soldiers, one under each arm.

To 19th century

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass