Prior to the American Revolution, the colonists had become familiar with the concept of charters. Charters, whether royal, corporate, or proprietary, operated “as the evidence of a compact between an English King and the American subjects.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 268; see also Leonard Krieger, The Politics of Discretion: Pufendorf and the Acceptance of Natural Law (Chicago, 1965), 121.
The charters that the colonies had with the King were “reciprocal agreements, ‘made and executed between the King of England, and our predecessors,’ and like Magna Carta, they were the recognition, not the source, of the people’s liberties.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 269 quoting Adams and Leonard, Novanglus and Massachusettensis, 194; Worcester Mass. Spy, Feb. 23, Apr. 6, 1775. For Americans, these charters were a way to clarify the English Constitution, or “to reduce to a certainty the rights and privileges we were entitled to” and “to point out and circumscribe the prerogatives of the crown, . . . [so] these prerogatives are as much limited and confined in the colonies as they are in England.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 269 quoting Adams and Leonard, Novanglus and Massachusettensis, 194; Worcester Mass. Spy, Feb. 23, Apr. 6, 1775.
These charters were essentially contracts between the people, with both sides having a stake. The people were “to yield all due obedience to their civil rulers, both supreme and subordinate,” and the rulers “were obliged to secure the people in their rights and to promote only the public good.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 269.
Americans began to understand that these charters could be adopted in an American government so as to guarantee rights, not just capture them on paper. Americans began to believe “that certain great first principles be settled and established, determining and bounding the power and prerogative of the ruler, ascertaining and securing the rights and liberties of the subjects, as the foundation stamina of the government; which in all civil states is called the constitution, on the certainty and permanent of which, the rights of both the ruler and the subjects depend.” Mather, America’s Appeal, 22-23.
The concept of the bill of rights was being realized. The Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and North Carolina state constitutions all reflected the sentiment, in one form or another, that “all the great rights which man never mean, nor ever ought, to lose, should be guaranteed, not granted, by the Constitution.” Four Letters, 22. These state constitutions wanted to protect the permanence of these rights, stating that they “ought never to be violated on any pretence [sic] whatsoever.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 272.
The changes that were happening to political theory and the protection of rights were groundbreaking. Early Americans were far too familiar with being told what their rights were, without any proof thereof. The tyranny that loomed over them and oppressed them would not be forgotten and it would continue to shape the principles that would define America.
As was true in so many ways, the state constitutions laid the foundation for the United States Constitution to be drafted, debated, and ratified. All of the states, by consensus or individually, were putting forward new ideas, solidifying those ideas, and allowing for a more vigorous, honest debate about what the best form of government was. It seemed that a wide range of approaches, ideas, and proposals were considered and implemented, and on the whole, the best of those were incorporated into the United States Constitution.
This careful deliberation and thoughtful approach helped to ensure that Americans would more diligently guard their rights in their new country. Many realized that the first step in doing so, and a large step at that, was the adoption of a bill of rights.