Founding Documents of LibertyCopyright 2009, David Trumbull
The American political system of liberty under law traces its origins in an unbroken train of written texts going back over 3,000 years (and for uncounted time in oral traditions and laws). It is a Mediterranean legal heritage that began with God's ancient people in Israel, with the ancient Greek philosophers, and with ancient Roman state-craft. All three traditions blended together in the Christian Roman Empire and developed into a systematic governing scheme that came to cover all of Europe, including that extreme north-west outpost, the British Isles.
By the 13th century England was contributing to this organic body of law and custom and it is the particularly British experience of Western law and political thought that forms the basis for American liberty.
It is a system that is ever open to new insights, whether from external sources or developing organically within the tradition, but in all its development over the millenia there has never been a rupture with the past nor with the principals set forth in these historic documents.
The unbroken written record of the passing on and development of our system of liberty under law–
The Ten Commandments handed on by Moses, 13th Cen. B.C.
God has given Commandments unto Men. From these Commandments Men have framed Laws by which to be governed. It is honorable and praiseworthy to faithfully serve the people by helping to administer these Laws. If the Laws are not enforced, the People are not well governed.
By laying out man's duty to God and to fellow-man, the Ten Commandments prescribes an orderly human society, consistent with the order of God's universe, within which human liberty can flourish free of the fear that the stronger, shrewder, or better-connected will exploit the weaker, duller, or less-favored.
In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.While in a cautionary passage from the First Book of Samuel, we read what will be the
Manner of the king that shall reign over those who would have a king.The central question of politcal theory is that of framing a civil society ordered, consonant with the moral order of the universe and with the greatest possible freedom for the recognition of each unique individual man and woman. While order and freedom are often falsely set against each other as incompatible goals with compromise vainly praised as the resolution of the conflict, that is a grave error. The biblical sages, as the Greek philosophers and their Roman readers and interpretors, understood that man is free of the oppression by fallen men and of his own concupiscience only when in harmony with natural law.
Solon 594/3 B.C.
Hebrew prophets 8th through 6th ce. B.C.
Athenian Democracy, 5th cen. B.C.
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
The Twelve Tables of Roman Laws, c. 451-450 B.C.
Discebamus enim pueri XII ut carmen necessarium, quas iam nemo discit "We learned the Twelve Tables when schoolboys, as an indispensable lesson (literally "necessary song"), which, by–the–bye, no one attends to now–a–days)."–M.T. Cicero (106-43 B.C.), de Legibus (On the Laws).
Justinian's Institutes, A.D. 535.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this "Corpus". It is the basis of all canon law (ecclesia vivit lege romana), and the basis of civil law in every civilized country.Justinian was also responsible for publishing the Institutes, a sort of textbook for lawyers-in-training. In the Institutes we find explication of the principles that are expressed as specific laws in the Corpus and the rest of the legal legacy of Justinian. English Common Law was developed on the foundation of Justinian and it it through that source that American law traces itself back to Justinian. In the State of Lousiana, where civil law is based on the Napoleonic Code, rather than English Common Law, the connection to the legal code of Justinian is even stronger.
Magna Carta, A.D. 1215.
We hold here that the right to a speedy trial is as fundamental as any of the rights secured by the Sixth Amendment. That right has its roots at the very foundation of our English law heritage. Its first articulation in modern jurisprudence appears to have been made in Magna Carta... –Chief Justice Earl Warren delivering the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the matter of Klopper v. North Carolina, March 13, 1967.
Mayflower Compact, A.D. 1620.
English Bill of Rights, A.D. 1689.
The American patriots of 1776 in framing our Declaration of Independence quoted with slight modifications many of these phrases of this document. –David Trumbull
Declaration of Independence, A.D. 1776.
The American Revolutionary War began April 19, 1775, a date celebrated as a public holiday in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Maine. The war became a fight for independence with the July 1776 adoption by the Americans' Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence.
The gentleman had mentioned the treaty of peace in a manner as if our independence had been granted us by the king of Great Britain. But that was not the case; we were independent before the treaty, which does not in fact grant, but acknowledges, our independence. We ought to date that invaluable blessing [of independence] from a much older charter than the [Paris] treaty of peace–from a charter which our babes should be taught to lisp in their cradles; which our youth should learn as a carmen necessarium, or indispensable lesson; which our young men should regard as their compact of freedom; and which our old should repeat with ejaculations of gratitude for the bounties it is about to bestow on their posterity: I mean the Declaration of Independence, made in Congress the 4th of July, 1776. –Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, South Carolina House of Representatives, January 18, 1788
Articles of Confederation, A.D. 1777.
Massachusetts Constitution, A.D. 1780.
Treaty of Paris, A.D. 1783.
The American negotiators, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, secured from one of the largest and most sophisticated world powers a treaty which contained not only an unconditional acknowledgment of American independence, but also important provisions establishing the territory of the United States as stretching from Canada to Florida and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. American commercial interests were address with a provision for Americans to continue being permitted to fish the waters of the Atlantic off Canada.
The Northwest Ordinance, A.D. 1787.
This is the single most important piece of legislation in the Confederation period. The importance of the statute, aside from providing for orderly westerly settlement, is that it made clear that the new states would be equal to the old and settlers of the territories would be equal citizens of the United States, enjoying all of the rights that had been fought for in the Revolution. Where the Articles of Confederation lacked a bill of rights, the Ordinance provided one that included many of the basic liberties the colonists had considered essential, such as trial by jury, habeas corpus, and religious freedom. The Northwest Ordinance would, with minor adjustments, remain the guiding policy for the admission of all future states into the Union.
U.S. Constitution, A.D. 1787.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, A.D. 1948
/1/ Fortescue, A. (1910). Justinian I. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08578b.htm)