Rights of Englishmen
"The rights of Englishmen" is a concept used to describe a tradition of unwritten constitutional rights and liberties, originating in Britain, from which many Anglo-American declarations of rights have drawn inspiration. These rights evolved and developed over several centuries and stages of Anglo-American history--peaking with the Enlightenment era.
The Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 by King John after coercion from an assembly of his barons, is an English charter that limited the power of the king by guaranteeing certain rights, liberties, and privileges to the English aristocracy . Among other important clauses, Magna Carta forbade the king from arbitrarily punishing any free man without due process of law and decreed that all nobles were to be judged by a jury of peers. It is important to note, however, that the Magna Carta, as it was written in 1215, was a charter that applied only to the king and nobles, and did not explicitly protect the rights of commoners. It was not until the early seventeenth century that jurist Edward Coke interpreted Magna Carta to apply not only to the protection of nobles but to all subjects of the crown equally .
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several precedents from Magna Carta appeared in British legal documents and writings as fundamental rights of Englishmen. Furthermore, the Glorious Revolution reinforced the meaning of Magna Carta with the Lockean notion that this charter was an early form of a social contract between a king and his people. As a social contract, therefore, Magna Carta represented a specific limit on arbitrary or despotic power and a protection of the people's rights and liberties. After the Glorious Revolution, monarchical absolutism was replaced by parliamentary sovereignty in this social contract, with the purpose of safeguarding the "rights of Englishmen. "
Several other civil rights that stemmed from Magna Carta inspired the United States Bill of Rights, but remain unwritten legal precedents in Britain today, include the right to a trial by jury, a speedy trial for those accused of criminal activity, due process, habeus corpus, and protection from "unreasonable" or arbitrary searches, seizures, and punishments.
Enlightenment Thinkers and the Political "Rights of Man"
In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the high intellectual Enlightenment was dominated by philosophes who opposed the absolute rule of the monarchs of their day, and instead emphasized the equality of all individuals and the idea that governments derived their existence from the consent of the governed. For instance, in 1690, John Locke (one of the fathers of the English Enlightenment) wrote that all people have fundamental natural rights to "life, liberty and property," and that governments were created in order to protect these rights. If they did not, according to Locke, the people had a right to alter or abolish their government .
Locke's political theory was founded on a social contract theory: that in a state of nature, all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his "life, health, liberty, or possessions. " However, Locke argued, as it is more rational to live in an organized society where labor is divided and civil conflicts could be decided without violence, governments were established to protect the "life, health, liberty, and possessions" of men. Hence, the government ruled on behalf of its subjects and could not violate the same rights it was created to protect. Essentially, Lockean conceptions of political rights included the right of man to determine the political structure that would oversee the protection of his natural rights.
Adam Smith, a Scottish political economist, extended on some of Locke's arguments by theorizing a relationship between government and trade. In "The Wealth of Nations", Smith argued that, rather than directing and controlling a nation's economy, the best kind of governments encouraged the development of free markets--in which trade with other nations was unfettered by mercantile policies. According to Smith, government should be limited to defense, public works, and the administration of justice, financed by taxes based on income.
Essentially, Smith envisioned the government's role in the economy as a minimized (even nonexistent) presence, with the "invisible hand" of supply and demand determining economic policy. Smith saw self-interest, rather than altruism, as the motivation for the production of goods and services. The "invisible hand" directed the tradesman to work toward the public good because they were supplying the public demand for specific goods and services, which in turn provided a moral justification for the accumulation of wealth. Therefore, the government was not needed as a source of public morality or an economic regulator.