Rights of Englishmen

The "rights of Englishmen" are the traditional rights of English subjects and later English-speaking subjects of the British Crown. In the 18th century, some of the colonists who objected to British rule in the thirteen British North American colonies that would become the first United States argued that their traditional[1] rights as Englishmen were being violated. The colonists wanted and expected the rights that they (or their forebears) had previously enjoyed in England: a local, representative government, with regards to judicial matters (some colonists were being sent back to England for trials) and particularly with regards to taxation.[2] Belief in these rights subsequently became a widely accepted justification for the American Revolution.[3][4]

The American colonies had since the 17th century been fertile ground for liberalism within the center of European political discourse.[5] However, as the ratification of the Declaration of Independence approached, the issue among the colonists of which particular rights were significant became divisive. George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, stated that "We claim nothing but the liberty and privileges of Englishmen in the same degree, as if we had continued among our brethren in Great Britain."[4]

Historical background

18th-century English jurist William Blackstone attempted to explain the rights of English citizens.

In the tradition of Whig history, Judge William Blackstone called them "The absolute rights of every Englishman". He described the Fundamental Laws of England in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), in which he explained how they had been established slowly over centuries of English history.[6] They were certain basic rights that all subjects of the English monarch were understood to be entitled to,[6] such as those expressed in Magna Carta since 1215, the Petition of Right in 1628, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Bill of Rights 1689.[7]

In a legal case that came to be known as Calvin's Case, or the Case of the Postnati, the Law Lords decided in 1608 that Scotsmen born after King James I united Scotland and England (the postnati) had all the rights of Englishmen. This decision would have a subsequent effect on the concept of the "rights of Englishmen" in British America.[8][9][10]

Legacy in United States law

Owing to its inclusion in the standard legal treatises of the 19th century,[lower-alpha 1] Calvin's Case was well known in the early judicial history of the United States.[9] Consideration of the case by the United States Supreme Court and by state courts transformed it into a rule regarding American citizenship and solidified the concept of jus soli – the right by which nationality or citizenship can be recognised to any individual born in the territory of the related state – as the primary determining factor controlling the acquisition of citizenship by birth.[11]

The Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley asserted that the "rights of Englishmen" were a foundation of American law in his dissenting opinion on the Slaughter-House Cases, the first Supreme Court interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, in 1873.[lower-alpha 2]

See also


  1. Compiled by Edward Coke, William Blackstone, and James Kent.
  2. In his dissenting decision, Bradley wrote:
    The people of this country brought with them to its shores the rights of Englishmen, the rights which had been wrested from English sovereigns at various periods of the nation's history.... England has no written constitution, it is true, but it has an unwritten one, resting in the acknowledged, and frequently declared, privileges of Parliament and the people, to violate which in any material respect would produce a revolution in an hour. A violation of one of the fundamental principles of that constitution in the Colonies, namely, the principle that recognizes the property of the people as their own, and which, therefore, regards all taxes for the support of government as gifts of the people through their representatives, and regards taxation without representation as subversive of free government, was the origin of our own revolution.


  1. Zuckert (2003).
  2. Tindall (1984).
  3. Swindler (1976).
  4. Miller (1959).
  5. Heale (1986).
  6. Blackstone, Fundamental Laws of England, the first part of Commentaries on the Laws of England, pp. 123–24. Scanned in text available at Yale Law School Libraries online. Retrieved 26 August 2010.
  7. Billias, George Athan (2011). American constitutionalism heard round the world, 1776–1989: a global perspective. New York: New York University Press. p. 54. ISBN 9780814725177.
  8. Price (1997).
  9. Hulsebosch (2003).
  10. Pearson (2005).
  11. Price (1997), pp. 138–39.


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