At the time of the American Founding, most people were agreed that the English Constitution was unquestionably an example of what Hamilton described as “good government” in the first Federalist. Its constitution had carefully balanced and separated powers, and it could rightly claim the honor of being the first to recognize a “bill of rights” that protected the people against arbitrary power. Political philosophers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries generally celebrated the British Constitution for protecting the individual rights of every class of citizen better than any other government in the world.
Nonetheless, to the outside observer, the accumulation of rights in the English system of government must have seemed like a process that was partly organic and partly a matter of happenstance – like the accretion of so many barnacles encrusting the ship of state over the years. The foundations and original reasons for many of England’s common law rights had been lost in the mists of time. And some of its most esteemed charters of rights, such as Magna Carta, had literally been wrested from the King by force. The American development of the Bill of Rights, by contrast, was meant to be a process of “deliberation and choice.” During the framing and ratifying periods, Americans deliberately selected the most cherished rights from the British tradition, but they would often provide their own rationales for these rights, incorporate them into their own unique institutions, and adapt them to their own situations.