The English Background of the American Constitution

D.A. Bass

(This message was first given as a radio broadcast on KID 590 AM in the spring of 2003)

In this piece we want to challenge you to think through the issue of the English background to the American Constitution. We are examining in this series of articles the long neglected topic of the Christian roots of the Constitution, which has a profound impact upon your daily life – more than any of us may realize! From what activity have you come before reading this article? Have you come from church? Where else are you able to practice your faith so freely (for the time being, that is)? Were you puttering around your kitchen or workbench, or perhaps driving in your car? So many of the fruits of the West – cars, media, the very computer with which you download this study – have been nurtured and created in the context of a culture where the scientific spirit and the robust energy and optimism toward the created world are there precisely because of the Christian worldview of the West. This is nothing new; it has been abundantly documented in the past; most recently in a survey fashion in the book Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett). However, the enemies of our Constitution want to eradicate this fact from our collective memories as fast as possible, since it does stand in the way of our merging with and becoming like the rest of the nations of the world. A distinctively Christian culture and consensus in America (and by this, I do not mean a Christian theocracy) is antithetical to the pagan philosophy of the world and a downright embarrassment to the socialist left in America where the backward, benighted Christians pose a threat to their agenda.

Unless you learn and own the character of that which constitutes an American, you will forget and lose the character of our Constitution in America. A system, a form of government, is only as good as the people who govern and only as limited as those who can govern themselves and their appetites and behavior. “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt,” noted Samuel Adams. Adams means by “manners” the entire worldview that governs the behavior of a particular people. And, of course, in his native land of America that worldview in his day was distinctively a Christian worldview! Did that worldview appear out of thin air? Was it invented whole-cloth by those who landed on the shores of the New World? No, of course not!

As we have been seeing over the last few weeks, government had had a long track record by the time our Founding Fathers put the last period on the finished Constitution. We have looked at the biblical foundations for government as well as the ancient roots of government in antiquity, including Greece and Rome. The more immediate experience of the men who shaped and formed our constitution was that of Great Britain and the English tradition of natural law. There are several features today I would like to highlight in that tradition which will bring back to life the Christian distinctive of our Constitution and American way of life. English liberty is steeped in biblical truth and a Christian worldview. For example:

1. The Magna Carta was a document of English liberty crafted and shepherded to fruition by Christians and the Christian Church. When you visit the National Archives in Washington DC, you will find amongst the copies of our founding documents, hermetically sealed under glass cases, a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Also, however, you will find a gift copy (donated by the government of Great Britain) of an even older document – The Magna Carta (The Great Charter).

It is in our national archives because it is one of the documents which shaped the government and liberties of Englishmen and thus of us Americans, too. Our Founding Fathers were painfully aware of its provisions, for they considered themselves good Englishmen and good subjects of the realm. It was only after patiently “suffering, while evils were sufferable,” the abridgement of those rights and liberties that our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to throwing off the chains of oppression by revolution and making another government. The Magna Carta, however, was ever in the forefront of their minds and the design of our own Constitution.

While it was King George III who oppressed the colonists in AD 1776, it was King John who oppressed the Englishmen of AD 1215. In his ambitious attempts to gain lands in Normandy, France, and restore the grandeur of his fathers, John taxed and seized land and property almost at will. He had the arms and authority of a handful of wealthy barons, which he used to oppress the remaining landed classes, as well as the common man. He was a ruthless, cunning man, without principle, except that of his own power and ambition. Claiming to be a good Christian and faithful Catholic, he violated every biblical norm and was faithless to every agreement he signed – including the Magna Carta.

There were, however, good and faithful Christians in the land. Among them were the landed barons, the Earls of Clare, Gloucester, Albemarle, and Winchester; there was William Mareschal, John Fitz-Robert, and Roger de Montfichet. All of these were nobles of the realm and good Christian men whose liberties and property were about to be or had been seized by King John. There is one key figure I have not mentioned yet, though, without whom the Magna Carta would not have been signed. His name is Bishop Stephen Langton, the largely unsung hero of the Magna Carta and the rights of Englishmen.

Consecrated archbishop of Canterbury in 1207, he was bitterly opposed by King John because of his independence, character, and sympathies with the people. He was tremendously popular with both royalty and the commoner. People loved his preaching and his pastoral demeanor. As he, in turn, consecrated pastors in England, built churches, and established the policy of the Church, he strengthened all of the institutions of the Kingdom. He had also observed over the years of his ministry the conniving of King John and the gradual depredations and encroachments upon the rights and liberties of his fellow Englishmen. In an English monastery that he visited from time to time, Langton discovered a copy of the charter of grant of Henry I, which was a predecessor of the Magna Carta. It had granted rights and freedoms which John had arrogantly violated all of his time upon the throne.

Langton began to develop the plan to reassert the charter of Henry I and add to its provisions. This fully expanded and developed document would become the Magna Carta we know today. Langton preached and taught the biblical basis for the rights of Englishmen; he counseled the barons in public and private on how they should proceed. Finally, in 1215 at a crucial meeting with the barons in St. Edmundsbury, Langton produced the copy of Henry I charter and exhorted them on the renewal and enforcement of it.

“Langton renewed his exhortations of unanimity and vigor in the prosecution of their purpose; and represented, in the strongest colors, the tyranny to which they had so long been subjected, and from which it now behooved them to free themselves and their posterity. The barons, inflamed by his eloquence, incited by the sense of their own wrongs, and encouraged by the appearance of their power and numbers, solemnly took and oath, before the high alter, to adhere to each other, to insist on their demands, and to make endless war on the King until he should submit to grant them.” David Hume

Finally, then, upon the fields of Runnymede, outside of London, in June of 1215, King John was forced to put his signature to the Magna Carta of English rights. Whose name do you suppose was at the top of the list of counselors of the petitioners who signed Magna Carta? Bishop Stephen Langton, of course! It is largely recognized by historians that, without the precipitating efforts of this Christian leader, the Magna Carta we know today would not have been written, signed, and promulgated. Even the anti-religious philosopher and historian David Hume – no friend to Christianity – confessed:

“Nothing forwarded this confederacy (of English barons) so much as the concurrence of Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury; a man whose memory ought always to be respected by the English. This was the prelate…who formed the plan which reformed government.”

Your freedoms and liberties, and the principles that form their foundations, are biblical and Christian to their core. Stephen Langton is only one of hundreds of brilliant, pious men who have thought through and patiently built the Christian worldview that has given you the freedoms and life of plenty you now enjoy. We stand upon the shoulders of men of far greater character than most in the field today; men who have sacrificed and bled for the rights and prosperity most of us take for granted in our own generation. The rights bought so dearly at Runnymede in the Magna Carta – rights like the rights of private property and due process of law – have come down to you, O Christian, in the form of government of our Constitution and the rights we hold as precious in the Bill of Rights. And make no mistake about this: these rights were made by Christians building on biblical principles. They had a Bible in one hand, a pen in the other, and a sword at their sides! Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this:

“It has been several times been truly remarked that bills of rights are…reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was Magna Carta, obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John.” Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper #84

Our Founding Fathers, in the tradition of Stephen Langton, were men rare in the annals of history: warrior-scholars, men who were steeped in the disciplines of theology, philosophy, government, and the art of warfare. They had their Bibles in one hand, their pens in the other, and a musket at their sides!

What are some of the other features of the English contribution to the American Constitution?

2. The English Bill of Rights was the model used by our Founding Fathers for our own American Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights was drawn up and signed amidst great pomp and ceremony, joy and reverence, in Westminster on December 16, 1689. It was the capstone of what has come to be known as the Glorious Revolution, when the tyranny of the Stuart kings was finally overthrown in 1688. King James II had run roughshod over the rights of Englishmen, defying Parliament and every Christian Church and minister he could lay hands upon. In fact, in his efforts to re-introduce Roman Catholicism to England, which had been replaced by the Protestant Church of England during the Reformation, James arrested 7 pastors and put them on trial for their lives and property. To his chagrin, they were acquitted, for, as one historian puts it, “…James had taxed the national feeling too greatly.” It was the beginning of revolution throughout England. These Christian clergymen who had stood on principle precipitated the events that would lead Parliament to offer the throne of England to the Prince of Netherland, William of Orange, who was married to Jame’s daughter, Mary. William and Mary landed in England in November of 1688 with an army; but James fled to France and, without bloodshed, the Glorious Revolution was accomplished.

What is important for us here is that the British, not eager to exchange one tyrant for a pair of them, made the agreement to a Bill of Rights one of the conditions of William and Mary’s ascendance to the throne of England. What is often forgotten in our history is that the commoner in England had enjoyed an unparalleled measure of freedom and dignity under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. As you remember from your history, Cromwell led the armies of Parliament in the defeat of the Royalist armies of the tyrant, King Charles I. These deeply Christian men of the Revolution saw under Cromwell many of the principles of the Reformation bear fruit in the period between the Kings. Reforms were instituted throughout the Church of England; churches and denominations of many stripes were tolerated and recognized; the property rights of freemen throughout England were recognized and represented as never before in the House of Commons; the Court system was overhauled and reformed, with arbitrary and tyrannical judges dismissed or jailed. These were all threatened and almost disappeared when the Kings, Charles II and James II, returned to the throne. Therefore, there was cause for great rejoicing when William and Mary – good Protestant Christians both – not only agreed, but eagerly affirmed the impulse of Parliament to promulgate an English Bill of Rights. It was to the work and writings of men like Cromwell and John Milton (Cromwell’s secretary) that Parliament looked when they drew up the Bill of Rights. These men, too, had their Bibles in one hand, pens in the other, and a sword at their sides! They were Christian princes who diligently sought the Bible for principles upon which to base government institutions.

What were some of the provisions of the English Bill of Rights?

* the prohibiting of “illegal and cruel punishments.”

* “That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king for redress of grievances…”

* “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence, suitable for their conditions…”

* “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.”

All of these rights were dearly bought for you, O Christian! The blood of 1000′s of Christian martyrs stains 100′s of English dungeon walls and gallows and battlefields! Our Founding Fathers knew this, too! They were students and scholars of their own heritage, unlike most of the politicians of our age. Consequently, they not only acknowledged the Christian, biblical consensus that informed British constitutionalism, but they embraced and suffused that Christianity into every fibre of our Constitution!

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