British Constitution

1215–1707

The British Constitution during the Colonial Era was a collection of laws, customs, and legal precedents that were established over 500 years. The Constitution was significantly affected by the Glorious Revolution, which led to the addition of the English Bill of Rights. Following the French and Indian War, the ideology of the American Revolution developed, based on principles found in the British Constitution.

James Otis, Sons of Liberty, American Revolution, NYPL

Massachusetts lawyer James Otis argued against the Writs of Assistance in 1761 and based his arguments on the British Constitution. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

British Constitution Facts

  • The British Constitution was a mix of laws, customs, and precedents, not a single written document, like the United States Constitution.
  • The Glorious Revolution of 1688 played an important role in establishing the principles of the Constitution that played a role in the American Revolution.
  • Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Rule of Law were fundamental to the British Constitution in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
  • The Revolution Settlement, which included the English Bill of Rights, defined the relationship between Parliament and the Crown, giving Parliament authority.
  • The dispute over Parliamentary Authority and Taxation Without Representation was a direct cause of the American Revolution.
Sir Edward Coke, Portrait, Athow
Sir James Coke played a significant role in establishing the British Constitution. This portrait is attributed to Thomas Athow. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Timeline

  • 1215 — The Magna Carta was the first written document to define limits on royal authority, listing ancient English liberties that the king was not to transgress.
  • 1627 — Petition of Right was a constitutional document passed by Parliament that set out specific liberties of the subject that the king is prohibited from infringing, including protection against arbitrary imprisonment and taxation without Parliament’s consent.
  • 1679 — The Habeas Corpus Act was passed, ensuring unlawful imprisonment.
  • 1688 — During the Glorious Revolution, King James II was replaced by William III and Mary II, leading to the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.
  • 1689 — The Bill of Rights reaffirmed ancient English liberties, prohibited standing armies without Parliament’s consent, and ended the monarch’s power to suspend or dispense with laws.
  • 1689 — The Toleration Act granted limited religious freedoms to dissenters from the Church of England.
  • 1694 — The Triennial Act ensured Parliament would meet at least once every three years and that new elections would be held regularly.
  • 1701 — The Act of Settlement established Protestant succession to the throne and secured an independent judiciary, strengthening Parliamentary Authority over the Crown.
  • 1707 — The Acts of Union joined England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain, creating one parliament and equal rights in trade.
  • 1715 — The Septennial Act extended the duration of Parliament from three to seven years, adjusting the legislative framework to ensure longer periods of government stability.

British Constitution Significance

The British Constitution in the Colonial Era was important to American History because it established a framework of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. These principles were solidified by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the passage of the English Bill of Rights. The Constitution ensured the Crown was subject to the will of the people, which was exercised through their elected representatives in Parliament. However, Americans viewed the Constitution in a much different light than most British officials and used it as the basis for the ideology that formed the basis of the American Revolution.

British Constitution History

Magna Carta (1215)

The Magna Carta, also known as the Magna Charta or the “Great Charter,” was a groundbreaking document imposed on King John of England in 1215 by a group of English barons. King John was accused of violating what were considered to be basic rights, including:

  • The right of the church to be free of government interference.
  • The right to own and inherit property.
  • The right to not be subjected to excessive taxes.
  • The right of widows who owned property to not remarry.

It was the first written document aimed at limiting royal authority and outlined specific English liberties the Crown could not infringe upon. These liberties included judicial procedures, limited taxation, and attempts to control Habeas Corpus (the right against unlawful imprisonment). It also marked the establishment of England’s first Parliament, known as the Common Council, consisting of influential men who regulated taxation and were not necessarily loyal to the Crown.

In the early 17th Century, the Magna Carta regained importance as political leaders like Sir Edward Coke referred to it as they opposed the actions of King Charles I. Coke argued the document represented the authority of Common Law and established the Crown could not overstep it. Because of this, the Magna Carta became a symbol of English rights, and its principles of the Rule of Law were often found in colonial charters and, later, state constitutions.

While the Magna Carta guaranteed Habeas Corpus, it did not establish the principle. It is believed to have been established by the 1166 Assize of Clarendon, which also created the principle of trial by jury.

Petition of Right (1627)

In 1627, King Charles I imposed a forced loan on his subjects and imprisoned those who refused to pay. Charles needed the money to pay for an army and to quarter troops in the homes of English subjects.

Parliament responded by adopting the Petition of Right in 1628, which was influenced by Sir Edward Coke. The Petition of Right included four key principles:

  1. Taxes could only be levied on the people with Parliament’s consent.
  2. People could not be arrested without cause (Habeas Corpus), which was guaranteed by the Magna Carta. 
  3. Quartering of troops in people’s homes was illegal.
  4. Martial Law could not be declared during peacetime.

Understanding that Parliament would refuse any future financial grants unless he accepted the petition, Charles I agreed and signed it. While embers of the House of Commons intended for the petition to serve as a Bill of Rights, Charles argued his acceptance of the petition was a favor granted by the Crown instead of a recognition of the rights of the people through their representatives in Parliament.

King Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Habeas Corpus Act (1679)

Following the English Civil Wars, the Stuarts were restored to the throne. In 1679, during the reign of King Carles II, people were often arrested and held for long periods, without charges. Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which enshrined the right of a person against being unlawfully imprisoned in the Constitution. Although it was largely intended to keep the Crown from imprisoning political opponents, it also stated prisoners could not be transported to various places, including Scotland and New Jersey, before they were convicted.

The Glorious Revolution (1688–1690)

This Glorious Revolution was a sequence of events that culminated in the ascension of two Protestants, King William III and Queen Mary II, to the throne of England, replacing the Catholic monarch, King James II. Although the Revolution contributed to uprisings in Massachusetts (Boston Revolt), New York (Leisler’s Rebellion), and Maryland (Coode’s Rebellion), it led to the Revolution Settlement of 1689, which was a significant step forward for the Constitution.

King James II, Portrait, Lely
King James II. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The primary cause of the Glorious Revolution was the actions of King James II, who was Catholic. After succeeding his brother, Charles II, in 1685, James was popular. However, he started to abuse his authority, bypassing Parliament to ease restrictions on Catholics and Nonconformists (Separatists and Puritans).

In April 1688, James issued the Declaration of Indulgence, which many members of the clergy refused to read from their pulpits. The Archbishop of Canterbury and six bishops petitioned the crown, arguing the declaration was illegal. James responded by prosecuting them for seditious libel, but a jury acquitted them in June, undermining his authority.

On June 10, 1688, a son,  James Francis Edward, was born to King James II and his wife. The baby was baptized Catholic, and his birth meant that his Protestant daughters from a previous marriage would no longer be first in line for the throne, raising fears of a Catholic dynasty. 

In response, a group of influential politicians, concerned about the prospect of a Catholic heir and James’s pro-Catholic rule, invited William of Orange, James’s nephew and the husband of his daughter Mary, to England to defend the Protestant Cause and the English Constitution.

James Stuart, Prince of Wales, Old Pretender, Portrait, Belle
James Francis Edward Stuart by Alexis Simon Belle. Image Source: Wikimedia.

William landed in England on November 5, 1688, with over 14,000 Dutch troops under his command. In the wake of the invasion, some of James’s key political and military supporters abandoned him, including his daughter Anne.

Despite having a larger army, James chose not to engage William in combat. James fled England in December 1688, leaving the throne vacant and allowing William to take control of London.

In January 1689, Parliament convened to address the crisis and determined that James had abdicated his throne by violating the Constitution and fleeing the country. Consequently, this Parliament, known as the Convention Parliament, declared Mary and William, who were first and third in the Protestant line of succession, as joint sovereigns in February 1689.

On April 11, 1689, Mary and William were crowned as monarchs. During their coronation, they read aloud the Declaration of Rights, which outlined the constitutional principles and protections they had agreed to. The declaration was passed into law as the Bill of Rights, the first step in the Revolution Settlement, solidifying the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and individual liberties within the English Constitution.

Coronation of William and Mary, 1689, Painting, Rochussen, 2024
This painting by Charles Rochussen depicts the coronation of William and Mary. Image Source: Amsterdam Museum.

Repercussions in Scotland and Ireland

In Scotland, Presbyterians responded by removing bishops from their leadership positions in the church, whom James had supported. Supporters of James and the Stuart Line, who were also Catholic, became known as Jacobites. Many of these supporters were located in the Scottish Highlands, and they remained loyal to the Stuarts and eventually supported two Jacobite Rebellions:

  1. In 1715, James Edward Stuart, the son of King James II, led a failed rebellion. James Edward was known as the “Old Pretender.”
  2. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, the son of James Edward and grandson of King James, led another failed rebellion. Charles Edward was known as the “Young Pretender” and “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

Many of the Scots Highlanders who were defeated at the Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) eventually emigrated to America.

In Ireland, the Catholic majority welcomed James II and his army to Dublin in March 1689. A Catholic parliament, later called the “Patriot Parliament,” reinstated political and economic rights for Catholics and acknowledged James as King of Ireland. However, William III’s forces defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne (July 1, 1690). Afterward, James fled to France and Protestants took control of Ireland. 

Battle of the Boyne, 1690, William Crossing the Boyne
This painting depicts William III crossing the Boyne River in 1690. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Revolution Settlement (1688–1689)

After King James II abdicated the throne, Parliament enacted a series of laws that established parliamentary sovereignty, meaning that Parliament had the ultimate authority over the Crown. Known as the Revolution Settlement, it included important governmental reforms carried over from Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, such as a mixed government with a single executive and advisory council, both dependent on a two-house (bicameral) legislature. The reforms also mandated regular elections, parliamentary oversight of taxation, and limited religious toleration. 

The key pieces of of the Revolution Settlement, which expanded the Constitution were:

  1. Bill of Rights (1689) — This document reasserted traditional English liberties, banning standing armies without Parliament’s consent, prohibiting the monarch from suspending or dispensing laws, ending taxation without Parliament’s consent, and guaranteeing the freedom to petition the crown, hold free elections, and have frequent Parliaments.
  2. Toleration Act (1689) — This act gave dissenters from the Church of England limited rights to worship freely and publicly.
  3. Triennial Act (1694) — This law ensured that the monarch could not rule without Parliament, requiring that Parliament meet at least once every three years and mandating new elections at least every three years.

Act of Settlement (1701)

Act of Settlement secured the Protestant succession to the throne and ensured an independent judiciary. Following the unexpected death of Prince William, the Duke of Gloucester, in 1700, there was a succession crisis, because the next heirs in line were Catholic, not Protestant.

To address this issue, the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701. It bypassed over 50 Catholic heirs, designating Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her heirs as successors to the throne. Sophia was the granddaughter of James I and the nearest Protestant in the direct line of descent from the Stuarts. The Act of Settlement excluded Catholics and those married to Catholics from the throne and required the monarch to swear to maintain the Church of England.

The Act of Settlement further strengthened Parliament’s constitutional authority by introducing several key provisions:

  • The monarch could not engage in war or leave the country without Parliament’s consent.
  • Foreigners were banned from holding English offices or being awarded English land.
  • Judicial independence was secured by ensuring judges could only be removed by a vote of Parliament, not at the will of the Crown.
Sophia of Hanover, Portrait, Honthorst
Sophia of Hanover by Gerard van Honthorst. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Scotland did not follow along with England in this measure. Instead, it passed the Act of Security (1704) that gave it the power to reject the English monarch. This escalated tensions between Scotland and England. 

Scotland prepared its militia and England ordered its warships to return home. In response, England passed the Alien Act of 1705, treating Scotland as a foreign nation and banning trade with it unless the Scottish Parliament accepted the Hanoverian Succession. This ultimatum led to negotiations for a union, resulting in the creation of Great Britain in 1707. 

The Acts of Union Creates the Kingdom of Great Britain

From 1603, England and Scotland were only united through a shared monarch and maintained separate Parliaments. The union was tested by the dispute over the Act of Settlement, the Act of Security, and the Alien Act.

At the time, the economy of Scotland was struggling due to poor harvests and a failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama, known as the Darien Scheme. Meanwhile, England was involved in the War of Spanish Succession with France. Despite the disagreement of the line of succession, both nations wanted to avoid a costly conflict. Commissioners were appointed and they negotiated a which was ratified by the Scottish Parliament in January 1707 and by the English Parliament in March 1707.

The Acts of Union abolished the separate states and parliaments of England and Scotland, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain, with the following provisions:

  • Great Britain had one monarch, one parliament, and equal rights in trade. 
  • The Church of Scotland was given an equal position with the Church of England.
  • Scotland’s legal and local political systems were guaranteed
  • Representation in the British Parliament consisted of 45 Members of Parliament from Scotland and 16 Scottish peers elected to the House of Lords. 
  • It also included financial compensation for Scottish investors to cover their losses from the Darien Project.
Queen Anne, Portrait, Closterman
Queen Anne was the monarch at the time of the Acts of Union. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Stabilizing the Constitution

The Constitution was further stabilized by the 1714 Hanoverian Succession, which saw King George I ascend the throne of England and Ireland, and the defeat of the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745. These events helped solidify the political system, allowing debate without the threat of civil war.

British Constitution and the American Revolution

By the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the 13 Original Colonies were fully established. Within the next decade, France and England were engaged in the French and Indian War, the final war for control of North America.

Following the death of King George II on October 25, 1760, his son ascended the throne and became King George III. In Massachusetts, Charles Paxton, a customs official, asked Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson — who was also head of the Massachusetts Superior Court — to issue new Writs of Assistance, which a group of Boston merchants opposed.

James Otis, a prominent lawyer, agreed to represent the merchants, who filed a lawsuit, arguing the renewal of the was illegal, based on the British Constitution. During the proceedings, Otis is believed to have given a fiery speech that lasted for at least five hours.

Otis based his arguments on Natural Law and the British Constitution. Although the law and precedent favored the legality of the Writs, Otis argued the Writs allowed unlawful search and seizure of property and violated the inherent natural rights of people to feel safe in their homes. Otis famously said, “…one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle…”

Years later, John Adams, a Founding Father and Second President of the United States recalled, “Otis was a flame of fire…American Independence was then and there born.”

Vocabulary

People

  • Charles II — King of England, Scotland, and Ireland before James II.
  • James Francis Edward — The Catholic son of James II, whose birth led to the Glorious Revolution.
  • James II — King of England, Scotland, and Ireland whose actions led to the Glorious Revolution.
  • Mary II — Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland who ruled jointly with her husband, William III, following the Glorious Revolution. Daughter of James II and wife of William of Orange.
  • Prince William — The Duke of Gloucester, whose death led to the passage of the Act of Settlement.
  • Sir Edward Coke — An influential English jurist and legal thinker who played a significant role in drafting the Petition of Right.
  • Sophia of Hanover — The granddaughter of James I and the designated successor to the British throne by the Act of Settlement.
  • William of Orange — Nephew of James II, invited to England to support the Protestant cause and constitutional governance, later became King William III.

Groups

  • Barons — Members of the lowest order of the British nobility.
  • Church of England — The primary state church in England, also known as the Anglican Church.
  • Colonial Assemblies — Legislative bodies established in the American Colonies, composed of representatives elected by the colonists.
  • Common Council — The early form of Parliament in England, composed of influential men who helped regulate taxation.
  • Convention Parliament — A special session of Parliament called to address the political crisis following the abdication of King James II.
  • Dissenters — Individuals who separated from the Church of England, including Separatists.
  • House of Commons — The lower house of the British Parliament.
  • House of Lords — The upper house of the British Parliament.
  • Jacobites — Supporters of James II and his descendants in their claim to the British throne.
  • Joint Sovereigns — Two individuals who rule a kingdom together, sharing the responsibilities and powers of the monarchy.
  • Nonconformists — Individuals who did not conform to the established Church of England, including Puritans.
  • Patriot Parliament — The name given to the Catholic parliament in Ireland that supported James II and restored rights to Catholics during his brief return.
  • Presbyterians — Members of a Protestant church governed by elders (presbyters) and founded on the principles of John Calvin.
  • Standing Armies — Permanent, professional armies maintained by a nation.
  • Stuarts — The royal family that ruled Scotland and England, to which James II belonged.
  • Tories — Members of a political faction in Britain that supported the monarchy and the church, often seen as conservative.
  • Whigs — Members of a political faction in Britain that opposed absolute monarchy and supported constitutional government.

Events

  • Battle of the Boyne — A significant battle in 1690 where William III’s forces defeated James II’s army, leading to James’s flight to France.
  • Cromwell’s Protectorate — The government established by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century, which included political reforms that were continued by the Revolution Settlement.
  • Glorious Revolution — The overthrow of King James II of England by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William III. Also known as the Revolution of 1688.
  • Hanoverian Succession — The succession of the British throne to Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs.

Legal

  • Magna Carta — A charter of liberties agreed upon by King John of England in 1215, considered foundational for establishing limits on royal authority and the rule of law.
  • Act of Security (1704) — A Scottish law asserting the right of the Scottish Parliament to determine the royal succession and address grievances over religion and trade.
  • Act of Settlement (1701) — A law designating Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs as successors to the British throne, and ensuring judicial independence.
  • Act of Union (1707) — Legislation that unified England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain, abolishing their separate parliaments. Sometimes referred to as the plural, Acts of Union.
  • Alien Act (1705) — An English law treating Scotland as a foreign nation and banning trade with it unless it accepted the Hanoverian succession.
  • Bill of Rights (1689) — A document that reasserted ancient English liberties, including bans on standing armies without Parliament’s consent and prohibitions on monarchs suspending or dispensing laws.
  • Declaration of Indulgence — A proclamation issued by James II suspending laws against Catholics and nonconformists.
  • Declaration of Rights — The document presented to William and Mary outlining the rights and liberties of the subjects, which was later enacted as the Bill of Rights.
  • Humble Petition and Advice — A constitutional document from Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate that influenced the Revolution Settlement.
  • Petition of Right — A constitutional document passed in 1628 that set out specific liberties of the subject that the king is prohibited from infringing.
  • Primacy of the Rule of Law — The principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials.
  • Redress of Grievances — The right of the people to have their complaints and issues addressed by the government.
  • Revolution Settlement — The package of laws that followed the Glorious Revolution, establishing the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional monarchy.
  • Rule of Law — The principle that all individuals and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.
  • Septennial Act (1715) — A law extending the duration of Parliament from three to seven years.
  • Toleration Act (1689) — A law granting limited religious freedoms to dissenters from the Church of England.
  • Triennial Act (1694) — A law requiring Parliament to meet at least once every three years and mandating elections every three years.

Topics

  • Abdicated — To renounce or relinquish a throne, right, power, claim, or responsibility, especially in a formal manner.
  • Bicameral Legislature — A legislature with two houses or chambers.
  • Consent of Parliament — The approval required from Parliament for certain actions, particularly in matters of taxation and military.
  • Coup — A sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.
  • Defections — The abandonment of one group in favor of an opposing one.
  • Dispensing Power — The claimed authority of the monarch to suspend or dispense with laws.
  • Episcopacy — A form of church governance by bishops.
  • Forced Loan — A mandatory loan imposed by the government, often without the expectation of repayment.
  • Habeas Corpus — The legal principle that someone under arrest must be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure their release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.
  • Judicial Independence — The principle that judges should not be influenced by the monarchy and can only be removed by Parliament.
  • Line of Succession — The order in which individuals are entitled to succeed to a throne or title.
  • Limited Taxation — The principle that the power to tax should be controlled and limited.
  • Monarch — The sovereign head of state in a monarchy.
  • Parliamentary Consent — The approval required from Parliament for certain actions, particularly in matters of taxation and military.
  • Parliamentary Sovereignty — The principle that Parliament has the ultimate authority in governance.
  • Protestant Cause — The political and religious movement aimed at defending and promoting Protestantism.
  • Protestant Succession — The order of succession to the throne based on Protestant lineage.
  • Quartering of Troops — The provision of lodging or accommodations for soldiers in private homes, often without the homeowner’s consent.
  • Royal Prerogative — The discretionary powers of the monarch.
  • Royal Succession — The process of inheriting the throne.
  • Sovereignty — Supreme power or authority.
  • Sovereignty of the People — The concept that the authority of the government is created and sustained by the consent of its people, through their elected representatives.
  • Successor — A person who follows another in a specific role or position.