What are the comparisons between the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the American Bill of Rights (1791)?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The English Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689 after the overthrow of Charles the II, in what is known as "The Glorious Revolution." Charles the II alienated nearly everyone in England at the time of his reign, primarily because of his efforts to Catholicize the nation. In response, the members of parliament secretly encouraged a Dutch prince, to overthrow him. William of Orange successfully led his fleet against the English sovereign and Charles the II fled the country. After William of Orange came to power, members of parliament decided they should have a document listing their rights so that their new ruler would have reasonable limits placed upon him. The English Bill of Rights provides the following:

  • The suspension of laws and dispensing with laws by the crown without consent of Parliament is illegal;
  • Commission for ecclesiastical causes is illegal;
  • Implementing taxes without grant of Parliament is illegal;
  • Subjects of the realm have the right to petition the king. It is illegal to prosecute anyone for petitioning the king. 
  • Keeping a standing army during peacetime without the consent of parliament is against law.
  • Protestants are allowed to have weapons for their defense as allowed by law
  • Elections for members of parliament should be held without cost to the people. 
  • The freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament should not be questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;
  • Extraordinarily high bail and/or fines should not be required, nor should cruel and unusual punishments be inflicted. 
  • In trials for high treason, jurors should be impartial. 
  • Any threats or infliction of fines and/or forfeitures before a conviction are illegal and void. 
  • For redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.

The document states that Charles the II departure from England was an abdication, and lists twelve things he did to subvert protestants. The writers of this Bill of Rights were seeking to prevent future suppressive measures by a sovereign. 

The United States Constitution's Bill of Rights closely mirrors the English Bill of Rights. Both documents were written for the same purpose, to limit power, though the were written under different circumstances. The English Bill of Rights sought to end the tyranny of the sovereign. The United States Constitution's Bill of Rights sought to grant individual liberties and freedoms. 

In framing the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Federalists argued that a bill of rights was not necessary since whatever power wasn't given to the federal government in the constitution went to the people and the states. The Anti-Federalists argued that a bill of rights was necessary to ensure personal liberties and freedoms. The Anti-Federalists won the argument, and the first ten amendments to the constitution became law in 1791. 

The ten amendments that make up the U.S. Bill of Rights are given below: 

Amendment I

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.

Amendment II

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.

Amendment III

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.

Amendment IV

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.

Amendment V

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 offense 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.

Amendment VI

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 defense.

Amendment VII

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.

Amendment VIII

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

Amendment IX

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

Amendment X

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.

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As you can see, there are many similarities between the two documents. The English Bill of Rights was written in reaction to Charles the II suppression of religious freedoms, and other grievances. The U.S. Bill of Rights was framed to ensure individual freedoms. Amendment I to the U.S. constitution is similar to the provision in the English Bill of Rights that all members of parliament shall have freedom of speech. Where the English Bill of Rights limits this to members of parliament, the U.S. Constitution gives this right to every citizen. 
 
Amendment II to the U.S. Constitution, commonly known as the right to bear arms, resembles the English Bill of Rights provision to allow protestants to possess weapons for self-defense. Again, the U.S. Constitution offers this to all citizens, whereas the English Bill of Rights sought to extend this right already given to Catholic citizens so that protestants would have the right as well. 
 
Amendment six to the U.S. Constitution is similar to the English Bill of Rights provision that anyone tried for high treason have access to an impartial jury. The sixth amendment provides this for all citizens charged with any crime, not just for citizens charged with high treason. High treason is a crime of contradicting a sovereign, and there is no exactly similar crime in the United States. 
 
Amendment eight to the U.S. Constitution is nearly identical to the English Bill of Rights provision that excessive fines or bail is prohibited, as is cruel and unusual punishment.