VII.1: The Origin of the Ideas behind the US Constitution

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The Origin of the Ideas behind the US Constitution

In early history, people referred to England as Angle-land because of a tribe that settled there called the Angles.

Then, in the fifth century, another tribe called the Saxons began to leave what is now the state of Saxony in Germany. They traveled by sea to what is now England. (Jefferson 1774) Later, the Angles and Saxons mixed. That is to say, this mixture produced the name “Anglo-Saxon”. The Saxons were the origin of the ideas behind the US Constitution.

Most importantly, the Saxons brought with them a very democratic government. For example, the people in each town gathered to vote on local decisions. Furthermore, the Saxons established “trial by juries” and “the natural rights of mankind”. (Demophilus [1776] 1983, 5, 7, & 21)

The bottom-up, democratic nature of their government is revealed by how they operated in war. That is, towns joined together in a “wapentake”. And when necessary these would join together into a “shire”. A shire was one “share” of the total Saxon land. (Demophilus [1776] 1983, 22) Our word for a county “sheriff” was derived from “shire reeve”.

But then in 1066, William of Normandy in France invaded the Anglo-Saxon land. He crushed the Anglo-Saxons’ democratic way of life. Later, William’s descendant, King John, was forced by a rebellion to sign a document called the Magna Carta. That document restored the people’s previous rights under the Saxon law system. (Incidentally, this same King John has become intertwined with the myths of Robin Hood.)

King John signed the Magna Carta. But then he got it annulled by the Pope. Later, his son, Henry the Third, finally yielded to the people’s rebellion. So he permanently established the Magna Carta in 1216. (Demophilus [1776] 1983, 14)

The Magna Carta was the next step in the origin of the ideas behind the US Constitution.

The Magna Carta led to establishing the British Parliament. That body is composed of the king, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The House of Commons gave the common people a voice in their government. Then, when America’s founders created our constitution, they used the British Parliament as a model. They replaced the king with our elected president, the House of Lords with our Senate, and the House of Commons with our House of Representatives.

I once visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There I saw the original US Constitution on display. Also on display was a copy of the Magna Carta, on loan from Great Britain. Those two documents were displayed together because they are so closely connected.

The principles in the Magna Carta were later expanded by many English and Scottish philosophers.

Examples of these philosophers are John Milton, James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and David Hume. Also a Frenchman named Montesquieu deserves mention. The constitutional guarantees of America’s freedoms were based on the writings of these men. Those guarantees were articulated by our founders, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

A short description of the influence of each of those philosophers follows:

John Milton opposed tyranny and supported “freedom of conscience and religious toleration”. His views influenced the “First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. (Independent Institute)

James Harrington conceived of “written constitutions, bicameral legislatures, and the indirect election of the president”. (Britannica)

Algernon Sidney championed free speech and popular consent. His writings influenced the Declaration of Independence. His words were so intense against royal power that he was eventually executed by the king. (MTSU)

John Locke influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. In particular, he wrote that government’s duty was to “protect the natural rights of the people” to include “life, liberty, and property”. (U.S. History)

David Hume provided James Madison with the understanding of how to limit the ability of majorities to oppress minorities. This idea required a strong national government and a large nation. That was one of Madison’s many arguments for a strong national government. (Walker 1981, 38-9)

Montesquieu formulated the Separation of Powers doctrine, based on ideas going as far back as Aristotle. That doctrine produced the division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in the US Constitution. (Seattlepi)

In 1776, Americans rebelled because they believed King George III had failed to live up to his (and their) country’s own principles.

For example, the king imposed injustices like “taxation without representation”. So even in declaring independence, the founders considered themselves good Englishmen.

Today, can you name an ally that is closer to America than Great Britain? Can you see why they are so close? Also our other closest allies are English speaking countries as well, like Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. But those alliances are not the result of common language, but rather our common Anglo-Saxon concept of freedom. And that concept is the origin of the ideas behind the US Constitution.

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Sources:

Britannica. James Harrington. https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Harrington (Accessed Oct. 5, 2020)

Independent Institute. “Free They Must Remain”: John Milton’s Enduring Wisdom https://blog.independent.org/2015/12/09/free-they-must-remain-john-miltons-enduring-wisdom/ (Accessed Oct. 5, 2020)

MTSU. Algernon Sidney. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1261/algernon-sidney (Accessed Oct. 5, 2020)

Seattlepi. Montesquieu Influence. https://education.seattlepi.com/ways-did-baron-de-montesquieu-influence-constitution-united-states-5497.html (Accessed Oct. 5, 2020)

U.S. History. Foundations of Government. https://www.ushistory.org/gov/2.asp (Accessed Oct. 5, 2020)

Walker, David B. 1981. Toward a Functioning Federalism. United States: Winthrop Publishers, Inc.

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