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Such was the Preamble to the “Body of Liberties ” of the Massachusetts Colony in 1641. It would be difficult to find any text more comprehensive than these remarkable words, -- the object being “ Liberties, Immunities, and Privileges," to such extent “as Humanity, Civility, and Christianity call for”; and this Declaration, broader than Magna Charta, became the inspiration of Massachusetts, if not of the Nation. Nor does Massachusetts stand alone in this honor. Connecticut is by her side.
I should not do justice to this “Body of Liberties," if I did not call attention to at least four different declarations. There is, first, the clause: “There shall never be any bond slavery, villenage, or captivity amongst us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us”; and although this provision falls short of that universal freedom which is our present aspiration. it is a plain limitation upon Slavery, and marks the hostility of the Colony. Another declaration sets an example of hospitality: “If any people of other nations, professing the true Christian religion, shall flee to us from the tyranny or oppression of their persecutors, or from famine, wars, or the like necessary and compulsory cause, they shall be entertained and succored amongst us according to that power and prudence God shall give us." And it is further declared: "Every person within this jurisdiction, whether inhabitant or foreigner, shall enjoy the same Justice and Law that is general for the Plantation, which we constitute and execute one towards another, without partiality or delay.” Here is nothing less than Equality before the Law, without this compendious term. There is another declaration, which has the same exalted character: "Every man, whether inhabitant or foreigner, free or not free, shall have liberty to come to any public Court, Council, or Town Meeting, and either by speech or writing to move any lawful, seasonable, and material question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, bill, or information, whereof that meeting hath proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.” Such declarations as these belong to the history of Freedom
1 The Preamble in combination with the first Article of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was adopted as the Preamble to the Connecticut Code of 1650. See Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, edited by J. H. Trumbull, (Hartford, 1850,) p. 509; and compare with Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc., ut supra.
In the animated discussions immediately preceding the Revolution, the rights and liberties of Englishmen were constantly asserted as the birthright of the Colonists. This was often by formal resolution or declaration, couched at first in moderate phrase. At the outrage of the Stamp Act, a Congress of delegates from nine Colonies, held at New York in October, 1765, put forth a series of resolutions embodying “Declarations of our humble opinion respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the Colonists."1 The humility of this language recalls the English Petition of Right under Charles the First. This was followed in 1774 by the Declaration of the Continental Congress, which, in another tone and with admirable force, in ten different propositions, arrays the rights which belong to "the inhabitants of the English Colonies in North America, by the immutable Laws of Nature, the Principles of the English Constitution, and the several Charters or Com
1 Proceedings of the Congress at New York, p. 5. Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts, Vol. III., Appendix, p. 479.
“ Time's noblest offspring is the last”;
and the whole Colonial series is aptly closed by the Declaration of Independence, announcing not merely the rights of Englishmen, but the rights of men.
Only a few brief weeks before the Declaration of Independence, Virginia, taking the lead of her sister Colonies, established a Constitution, to which was prefixed an elaborate Declaration of Rights. This remarkable document, which became the immediate precedent for the whole country, marks an epoch in political history. Massachusetts and Connecticut had already led the way in that early and most comprehensive Preamble, which has been too little noticed; but in all English Declarations of Rights, and generally even in those of the Colonies, stress was laid upon the liberties and privileges of Englishmen. The rights claimed even by the Continental Congress of 1774, in their masculine Declaration, were the rights of “free and natural-born subjects within the realm of England.” But the Virginia Bill of Rights, standing at the front of its first Constitution, discarded all narrow title from mere English precedent, planted itself on the eternal law of God, above every human ordinance, and openly proclaimed that "all men are by nature equally free and independent," -- a declaration which is repeated, though in other language, by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
The policy of Bills of Rights is sometimes called in question. It has been said that they were originally privileges or concessions extorted from the king, and, though expedient in a monarchy, are of little value in a republic. As late as 1821, in the Convention for revising the Constitution of New York, doubts of their utility were openly expressed by Mr. Van Buren. But they are now above question. State after State, ending with California, follows the example of Virginia and Massachusetts, and places its Bill of Rights in the front of its Constitution. Nor can I doubt that much good is done by this frank assertion of fundamental principles. The public mind is instructed, people learn to know their rights, liberal institutions are confirmed, and the Constitution is made stable in the hearts of the community. Bills of Rights are lessons of political wisdom and anchors of liberty. They are the constant index, and also scourge, of injustice and wrong. In Massachusetts, Slavery itself disappeared before the declaration that “all men are born free and equal," interpreted by a liberty-loving Court.1
1 Journals of Congress, October 14, 1774, Vol. I. p. 28.
In the Convention of 1780 the Bill of Rights formed a prominent subject of interest. The necessity of such a safeguard had been pressed upon the people, and its absence from the Constitution of 1778 was unquestionably a reason for the rejection of that ill-fated effort. Indeed, the Constitution was openly opposed because it had no Bill of Rights. In the array of objections at the period was the following, which I take from an important contemporaneous publication : "That a Bill of Rights, clearly ascertaining and defining the rights of
1 See, on this subject, a paper entitled "The Extinction of Slavery in Massachusetts," by Emory Washburn : Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc., 4th Ser. Vol. IV. pp. 333 - 346.
conscience and that security of person and property which every member in the State hath a right to expect from the supreme power thereof, ought to be settled and established previous to the ratification of any Constitution for the State.” 1 Accordingly, at the earliest moment after the organization of the Convention, a motion was made, "that there be a Declaration of Rights prepared previous to the framing a new Constitution of Government,” which after adoption gave way to another, “that the Convention will prepare a Declaration of Rights,” and this motion prevailed by a nearly unanimous vote, -- the whole number present, as returned by the monitors, being two hundred and fifty-one, of whom two hundred and fifty voted in the affirmative.2 Thus emphatically did the early fathers of Massachusetts manifest their watchfulness for the rights of the people; and there is good reason to believe, also, that among the motives which stimulated it was a determination in this way to abolish Slavery.3 The Convention then resolved to “proceed to the framing a new Constitution of Government.” A grand Committee of thirty was chosen to perform these two important duties; and this Committee, after extended discussion, intrusted to John Adams alone the preparation of a Declaration of Rights, and to a Sub-Committee, consisting of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, the duty of preparing the form of a Constitution, which Sub-Committee again delegated the task to John Adams : so that
1 Essex Result, p. 4.
8 This was the testimony of the late Rev. Charles Lowell, who had received it from his father, Hon. John Lowell, a member of the Convention, in whose family was a tradition that the latter obtained the insertion of the words "all men are born free and equal,” for this declared purpose. See, ut supra, Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc., 4th Ser. Vol. IV. p. 340.