For many of us, we know the Constitution as being the ground breaking, original, transformative document that made America the real deal! Right? Well, it’s actually a bit more tricky than that. Our Constitution is actually the compilation of several ideas from previous documents. Essentially, our Founding Fathers cut pieces from the Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation in order to construct the document we see today. I know what you’re thinking: James Madison is a plagiarist? *Gasp*. Well, let’s take a look and you can decide.
The Constitution- A New Government
While our Constitution instituted a new form of government, a democracy that was designed to be created by and for the people, the way in which we wrote this Constitution was also heavily based on our past documents. In the same way that we as individuals learn from our past mistakes, our Founding Fathers also learned from theirs. In these mistakes are the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation which we will discuss more of below!
The declaration of independence-1776
The Declaration of Independence was signed for the King of Great Britain by several dominant colonist figures (some of whom we refer to as the Founding Fathers). The purpose of this document was to rally troops against Great Britain, win over foreign allies, and announce the creation of a new country.
The best way to think about America during this time is that we were essentially a rebellious teenager. When we wrote this Declaration of Independence, we wrote it to our “parent”, the King of Great Britain. And in this, we wrote 27 different ways that he had upset us. We do this to prove a point, because we don’t want to upset our parent without having a solid reasoning behind doing so. Moreover, we are so rebellious at this time that instead of asking for things to be different, we essentially sign this letter by saying that we are running away and going to live with Grandma.
However, these 27 grievances that we had against our King at the time played an influential role in forming what would be our new form of government. Essentially, the King taught us everything we did not want to become. Take a look at a summary of each of the grievances below and the way in which we combatted most of them in our own Constitution.
|Grievance Against the King||How it was Corrected in the Constitution|
|1. Refused laws that were for the public good.||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|2. Refused laws that were absolutely needed||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|3. Enforced laws without representation||“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” |
|4. Moved representatives far from their homes||“The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services” which can be used to pay for housing and travel costs. |
Article 1 Section 6
|5. Refused to allow people to gather in town meetings||“Right of people to peacefully assemble,” is mentioned in the first amendment and can be used to meet in town halls or peacefully protest.|
|6. Removed law enforcement for long periods of time||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|7. Made land ownership hard for immigrants||“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”|
|8. Has not allowed local judges||“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.”|
Article 3 Section 1
|9. Has payed judges who rule in his favor||“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”|
Article 2 Section 4
|10. Has created new political offices to harass citizens||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|11. Kept standing armies in times of peace||” No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace”|
Article 1 Section 10
|12. Military was used without the consent of law officials||“[Congress can] provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”|
Article 1 Section 8
|13. Changed laws without writing them down||“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress”|
|14. Quartered troops in individuals homes||“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.”|
|15. Allowed troops to murder citizens||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|16. Cut off free trade||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|17. Imposed taxes without consent||“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”|
Article 1 Section 8
|18. Deprived us of jury trials||“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”|
|19. Sent us to England over crimes we did not commit||“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,”|
|20. Took over other territories and changed their free laws||“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”|
|21. Took away our charters||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|22. Took away local legislatures||“The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature“|
Article 1 Section 2
|23. Waged war against us instead of protecting us||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|24. Sent privateers to disrupt our trade||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|25. Sent foreign mercenaries to join his armies||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|26. Captured citizens at sea||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
|27. Encouraged war among the American people||Not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.|
So, it is easy to see here how the things that angered us that we mentioned in our Declaration of Independence, was actually changed in our own Constitution. But this was far down the line. Before we got to the Constitution we see today, we had the Articles of Confederation, which was essentially the first Constitution of America.
Articles of Confederation- 1777
The Articles of Confederation was written in 1777, about a year after we decided to leave our Great Britain parents. When we went to live with grandma, and be on our own, we wrote this document to try and keep everyone in line. Imagine living with your siblings away from your parents, with no one to tell you what to do… it was a recipe for disaster!
We hated what the King had done so much, we essentially stripped all rights away from the government and put it all back into the people. So, instead of having your parent say what’s for dinner, you could have ice cream and your brother could have pasta if he wanted. Life was free range for everyone!
In this, we made sure we had a weak central government. We wrote down nearly everything that the government could not do, but nothing really about what the government was needed for. Think about it like this: We said all the things we did NOT need our parents doing for us, but we never mentioned the things we definitely wanted them for like driving us around, buying us clothes, or paying our bills.
More specifically, we said that the government, our parents, could not tax us or ask us for money, could not form an army or a navy, and essentially could not make us do anything we did not want to do! You’d think we were living the life right? Well, things got a little tricky.
|What the government could NOT do||Why that became a problem|
|National government could not impose taxes on states and individuals.||This became a problem because all funding went through the states. The national government had to ask states to provide them with money, which most states never did. Imagine your mom or dad asking you to give them $20! It wouldn’t work right? Well, that’s exactly what happened here. We needed a new way to give the national government enough power to regulate finances for the greater good of the country as a whole.|
|The national government had no power to raise an army or navy. This was instead up to each individual state.||This really became an issue in 1786 with Shays’ Rebellion. Now, if you haven’t heard of Shays’ Rebellion before, let me break it down for you. So, in 1786, a bunch of farmers from Massachusetts were in extreme debt. But, they were also veterans from the British revolution. These farmers were promised by the Continental Congress that they would receive some money and support to thank them for their involvement in the Revolution. Well, because the government could not levy any taxes, the Continental Congress was BROKE and these men were unable to get their money. So, a guy named Daniel Shay organizes this rebellion against the weakness of the government and storms into the Massachusetts court room demanding payment. Well, of course, the court is trying to explain why they aren’t responsible for paying them, the national government is! When a riot breaks out, the court try to get their army to regain control but the army doesn’t obey orders because they sympathize with the farmers! So, the governor of Massachusetts, in a big panic, calls for national government assistance, but there is none to be had. There is no national money, no national army, and absolutely no national support. Houston, we have a BIG problem.|
|Each state was allowed to have its own rules, its own practices, and lifestyles without the consent or influence of a national government.||The power difference between the national government and local governments created a separation of a union. We were essentially cohabitants instead of a unified nation which made things much more difficult to accomplish. There was no United States of America, it was more like Some States in this Area!|
So, after about ten years of living the life, we started to realize how taking away all of the power of our national government parents was a bad idea. We wanted someone to come pay our bills and do our laundry ASAP. So, in 1787, we began to draft the Constitution that you see now. In this, we essentially started over, and allowed the national government to have more of a role in our everyday lives than we initially wanted them to. We didn’t move back with our parents, but we did send the occasional, “you were a little right,” post card.
The bill of rights
Next, one of the centerpieces of our Constitution is our Bill of Rights, which is the first ten amendments of the Constitution that discuss individuals rights. There are essentially two documents that are the main reasons why we have the rights we do. These are the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Let’s take a look at why these documents are so important to the content of our Bill of Rights today!
Magna Carta- 1215
The Magna Carta is a charter of rights that was agreed upon by King John of England in 1215. Initially, the purpose of this document was to provide peace between the unpopular King and his constituents. In this document, there is essentially a list of grievances against King John in which the people under his rule ask for some of the rights we have today.
Our Founding Fathers saw this as a successful document, and because of this, its influence can be seen in the content of our Constitution today. Take a look at the chart below that shows a comparison between statements of rights made in the Magna Carta compared to in the Constitution.
|Magna Carta Statement||Constitution Statement|
|“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”||“nor [shall any person] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”|
|“The writ called precipe shall not in future be issued to anyone in respect of any holding of land, if a free man could thereby be deprived of the right of trial in his own lord’s court.”||“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.”|
Plagiarized? Maybe not. But, it is very clear that the principles of the Magna Carta (such as allowing citizens protection form unlawful searches and seizures, a right to a speedy, jury trial, and protections from loss of life, liberty, or property with the due process of law) heavily influenced the Bill of Rights to our own Constitution. However, the content of the Constitution is influenced by several other documents as well.
english bill of rights- 1689
If you’re anything like me, much of history has skipped over this document, making you go “huh” to the fact that another bill of rights exists. Well, believe it or not, America was significantly behind the trend for granting rights to citizens, and because of it, was heavily influenced by the rights granted in this document.
This Bill of Rights was signed into law after the overthrow of King James II. Its signers, William III and Mary II essentially gave the Parliament power over the monarchy while also providing civil rights to their citizens. Our Founding Fathers took note of these rights and worked it into our own Constitutional Bill of Rights. Don’t believe me? Compare statements between the two below! Note that the first two quotes from the English Bill of Rights are found in the complaint section of the document, as such, its writers are advocating for the opposite of what is occurring.
|English Bill of Rights of 1689||Constitutional Bill of Rights|
|“By raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law.”||“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.”|
|“By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without consent of Parliament.”||“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments.”|
|“That election of members of Parliament ought to be free.”||“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”|
Art. 1 Sect. 4
|“That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”||“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.”|
|“That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void.”||“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”|
It’s easy to see here just how much our Founding Fathers wanted to resemble the successful rights that were before them. However, the Bill of Rights is only one part of our Constitution- so what about the formation of our government as a whole? Well, that was influenced predominantly by points made in the Declaration of Independence and the failures of the Articles of Confederation.
So, is the Constitution PLAGIARIZED?
Well, the short answer is no. However, it is EXTREMELY important that we realize that our Constitution is a breathing document that comes from all of its older siblings. Essentially, most of the content in it is hammy down clauses from older documents. Additionally, the lessons we learned from the failures of these older documents are what made us change our own Constitution in order to strengthen it.
Moral of the story: The Constitution we see today is built upon the documents and experiences of our past.
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See you all in the next lesson!