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

“The Rights of Englishmen”

Writ of Habeas Corpus

Perhaps almost as important as the English Bill of Rights, and preceding it by ten years, was the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. The Writ of Habeas Corpus – often referred to as “the Great Writ” – means literally “produce the body” or “have the body.” The body in question is the person of the accused: the prisoner who, without this writ, may be detained for an indefinite period of time. The place where the body must be produced is a court of law; whenever a prisoner appeals to this writ, he is afforded the opportunity to challenge the legality of his detention.

Although the development of what became known as the “rights of Englishmen” was truly the product of centuries, probably the single greatest influence on Americans’ understanding of what it means to institute constitutional protections for individual rights was England’s 1689 Bill of Rights. The Bill included protections that would be familiar to us today, such as the freedom of speech (for members of Parliament), the possession of arms (for Protestants), and prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishments” (presumably for all). England’s charters of freedom had come a long way since the time of Magna Carta, but they were still a far cry from the liberal democratic freedoms we often take for granted today.