Bills of Rights – A Comparison

Posted By on May 3, 2011

Throughout the history of man there have been times when groups of men, citizens and leaders felt it necessary to record for posterity a listing of rights, and the responsibilities of national governments. Recently I have been involved in some discussions regarding the American Bill of Rights. Last night it came to mind that I should write a brief comparison of other national bills of rights which were contemporaneous to the American Bill of Rights.

I, like our Founding Fathers, held our Constitution and Bill of Rights to be unique, exceptional and peerless. These ten initial amendments to the US Constitution are distinctive in their simplicity and stunning in their immediate impact and power. More discussions in academia, more decisions of the judiciary and more passion has been generated by these ten amendments than by any of the others or even the corpus of the body of the Constitution itself. Amendments I through VIII have been expounded upon, misquoted, suffered from the hands of judicial activism, while IX and X have been largely ignored. But it is those last two which are the most powerful and far reaching, and thus their lapsing into obscurity which have caused the greatest harm to the others and the Constitution itself, this is for another day.

The American Bill of Rights was passed by Congress on March 4, 1789 and finally ratified by 2/3 of the State legislatures on December 15, 1791. Are there other national Bill of Rights contemporary to ours which we could compare? Yes, there are two. The first is the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the second the French Declaration of Rights of August, 1789. Of the three the American Bill of Rights is the most compact, comprised of 623 words (including the its Preamble), while the others become verbose; the French has 806 words (in the English translation), while the English has a mind numbing 2866 words.

Let’s look first at the English Bill of Rights of 1689 (I’ve included the link for you to read the entire text). Here are some very telling excerpts:

And whereas the said late King James the Second having abdicated the government and the throne being thereby vacant, his Highness the prince of Orange (whom it hath pleased Almighty God to make the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power) did (by the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and divers principal persons of the Commons) cause letters to be written to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal being Protestants, and other letters to the several counties, cities, universities, boroughs and cinque ports, for the choosing of such persons to represent them as were of right to be sent to Parliament, to meet and sit at Westminster upon the two and twentieth day of January in this year one thousand six hundred eighty and eight [old style date], in order to such an establishment as that their religion, laws and liberties might not again be in danger of being subverted, upon which letters elections having been accordingly made…

And thereupon the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare…

Having therefore an entire confidence that his said Highness the prince of Orange will perfect the deliverance so far advanced by him, and will still preserve them from the violation of their rights which they have here asserted, and from all other attempts upon their religion, rights and liberties…

And thereupon their Majesties were pleased that the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, being the two Houses of Parliament, should continue to sit, and with their Majesties’ royal concurrence make effectual provision for the settlement of the religion, laws and liberties of this kingdom, so that the same for the future might not be in danger again of being subverted, to which the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons did agree, and proceed to act accordingly.

All which their Majesties are contented and pleased shall be declared, enacted and established by authority of this present Parliament, and shall stand, remain and be the law of this realm for ever; and the same are by their said Majesties, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in Parliament assembled and by the authority of the same, declared, enacted and established accordingly.

From this we can readily comprehend this document was written by lawyers and filled with legalese. Additionally, we observe the utter importance placed upon the Crown, the King. It can easily be misconstrued to see how the King has the power to reject laws passed by Parliament simply because he may not be “contented and pleased” with it, and how “his Highness the prince of Orange as being the only means for obtaining a full redress and remedy therein.” In other words, the King is the only arbiter for redress for wrongs suffered by the citizens against the verbiage of this supposed Bill of Rights. Hence the seeds of the American Revolution were planted in the very document Parliament intended to secure the rights of English citizens.

Next let’s consider the French Declaration of Rights with the following quotes:

The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.(Emphasis Added)

Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

While the French Declaration is similar in many ways, the difference, while slight is apparent – at least to me. The primary difference is the individual is restricted by the laws passed by the representatives of the people. Religion can be restricted based upon the needs of the good of the people. Speech cannot be silenced, unless it disturbs “the public order established by law.” Compare these to “Congress shall make no laws concerning…” While the French seemed intent on providing a comprehensive list of human rights, on the next breath the were just as determined to establish the power of the government.

The American Bill of Rights, at the risk of being overly repetitive, is an ongoing restating of restrictions upon the federal government. There is not a single instance of the rights of the people being restricted in any way. The federal government is restricted and limited at every turn, while the rights and liberties of the people remain fully, and unquestionably intact and in force. This places the ultimate sovereignty in the people of this land, not in a king or a legislative body of representatives.

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