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Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. Collection: The English Bill of Rights and Its Influence on the United States Constitution

The Law Library thanks Research Assistant Savanna Nolan, (J.D. '13) for her assistance with this project.

By Andrew Muchmore

I. Enactment of the English Bill of Rights

The English Bill of Rights was enacted by the English Parliament and singed into law by King William III in 1689.[1]  It is one of the fundamental documents of English constitutional law, and marks a fundamental milestone in the progression of English society from a nation of subjects under the plenary authority of a monarch to a nation of free citizens with inalienable rights.  This process was a gradual evolution beginning with the Magna Charta[2] in 1215 and advancing intermittently as subsequent monarchs were compelled to recognize limitations on their power.

The establishment of the English Bill of Rights was precipitated by repeated abuses of power by King James II during his reign from 1685 to 1689.  Among these abuses, he suspended acts of Parliament, collected taxes not authorized by law, and undermined the independence of the judiciary and the universities.  He interfered in the outcome of elections and trials and refused to be bound by duly enacted laws.  Furthermore, he attempted to impose Catholicism on a staunchly Protestant nation through the persecution of Protestant dissenters and the replacement of Anglican officials who refused to acquiesce in his illegal acts.

In November of 1688 William of Orange and his wife Mary, daughter of James II, invaded England with the popular support of the English people and much of the English nobility.  He brought with him a large army comprised primarily of Dutch mercenaries, but James ultimately fled for France without significant bloodshed taking place.  In January of 1689 a Convention assembled in London to determine the succession of the English Crown.  The Convention was composed of former members of Parliament and functioned much like a parliament, but as Parliament had been legally disbanded and the Great Seal had been thrown in the River Thames, their acts did not formally carry the force of law.[3]  After much debate the Convention drafted a Declaration of Rights and offered the throne of England jointly to William and Mary.  After the accession of William and Mary and the formation of a legal Parliament, this Declaration was adapted to create a Bill of Rights which was signed into law, forever altering the balance of power between the sovereign and his subjects.

II. Structure of the English Bill of Rights in English Constitutional Law

Unlike the United States Constitution, which sets forth the rights of citizens and the relationship between governmental bodies in a single comprehensive document, English constitutional law is comprised of a number of different documents the force of which has steadily grown over the years.  Many of the rights of Englishmen are enshrined in the Magna Charta rather than the English Bill of Rights, most notably the right to due process[4] and the Writ of Habeas Corpus.[5]

            Aside from guaranteeing specific freedoms, the English Bill of Rights also serves to tie up certain loose ends resulting from the flight of James II to continental Europe and the transfer of sovereignty to William and Mary and their descendants.  It establishes that King James’ flight from England constituted an abdication of the throne, and declares William and Mary his rightful successors.

The first section of the English Bill of Rights sets out an enumeration of grievances against James II, much like the enumeration of grievances in the United States Declaration of Independence against George III.  The second section of the English Bill of Rights sets forth a declaration of thirteen ancient rights and liberties which the document is intended to protect.  These largely mirror the enumerations of error from the preceding section, and it is these rights that we will analyze in more detail.  The remainder of the English Bill of Rights establishes the sovereignty of William and Mary and provides for their succession.  It also provides that no Catholic may inherit the throne and no king may marry a Catholic.  This was a reflection of the role that religion played in the Glorious Revolution, and the deep-seated fear the English people held of being subjects of a Catholic dynasty.

III. Enumerations of Rights and their Corollaries in the United States Constitution

  • That the pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of parliament, is illegal.
  • That the pretended power of dispensing with laws, or the executions of laws, by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.

Items 1 and 2 under the enumeration of rights provide that no king may suspend or dispense with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without the consent of Parliament.  This was a response to King James’ efforts to suspend Habeas Corpus and the Test Act.

These items are mirrored in the U.S. Constitution’s clause requiring the president to faithfully execute the laws.[6]  The president’s duty to faithfully execute the laws under the U.S. Constitution is effectively equivalent to the prohibition against suspension of the laws under the English Bill of Rights.  The president is not permitted to refrain from executing the laws as duly enacted by congress and interpreted by the judiciary.[7]  This duty was recently used to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as required by the Clean Air Act.[8]  It has also led to recent controversy surrounding President Bush’s extensive use of signing

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