The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

A Brief History of Rights Prior to the United States Bill of Rights

Magna Carta

Familiar Political Principles

Magna Carta was the result and resolution of longstanding feuds between the British monarchy and its barons. The document was famously signed at Runnymede in 1215, where King John was forced at sword’s point to recognize or concede certain rights to his most powerful subjects. Subsequent monarchs entered more willingly into the agreement.

Some familiar political principles – principles that we recognize today as fundamental to the operations of good government – were first laid down in Magna Carta. For instance, someone accused of a crime should have the right to be confronted by witnesses against him and to be tried by a jury of his peers; and no punishments should be exacted except by due process of law (“unless by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land”).

Magna Carta was primarily designed to establish the proper relationship between noblemen and their King, but it would take a few centuries before many of these rights were recognized as the birthright of all freeborn male Englishmen. It would take even longer for women’s rights to be recognized.