Unit 2 (Defending rights)

Rights and civil liberties since the 17th century


Generally speaking, a civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Discrimination will be agreed to have occurred when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of the individual’s membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances, sexual orientation.

People often confuse civil rights and civil liberties. While civil rights refer to legal provisions that stem from notions of equality. Civil rights are not in the Bill of Rights; they deal with legal protections. For example, the right to vote is a civil right. A civil liberty, on the other hand, refers to personal freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights. Civil rights contain a protective aspect of the rights based on protected characteristics. Looking at what right is affected and whose right it is can help you understand the difference between civil rights and civil liberties. For instance, employees do not have the right to be promoted because it is not considered to be a civil liberty. However, female workers have the right to be free from discrimination when being considered for promotions. Employers are not able to deny promotions based on the protected characteristic of gender. Discriminating against an employee on the basis of gender is a civil rights violation.

While we have agreed in the previous unit, that the origins of human rights can be traced to the famous Cyrus cylinder and the magna Carta of 1215, we continue to explore the journey of rights and civil liberties to better understand the importance, acceptability and fundamental nature of human rights as they exist today.

Some successive documents and declarations, extremely important in the journey of human rights in modern times, are discussed below:

-1689: The English bill of rights

The roots of the bill of rights can be traced to a determined attempt by King James II to reinstate Catholic worship in England, coupled with his increasingly authoritarian responses to resistance, which resulted in a wave of unrest in 1688.

This bill set out strict limits on the Royal Family’s legal prerogatives such as a prohibition against arbitrary suspension of Parliament’s laws. More importantly, it limited the right to raise money through taxation to Parliament.

Following the withdrawal of King James II from government after a Dutch force led by Prince William of Orange (the future King, William III), invaded England in support of the king’s opponents, both Houses of the English Parliament agreed to a statement to assert and confirm what were seen as ancient laws and liberties, and to underline the arbitrary and illegal nature of many of the actions of James and his predecessor, Charles II. On the 13th of February 1689, parliament offered William and Mary the Crown, together with their Declaration of Rights, in a way that was intended to suggest that the offer was conditional on William and Mary’s assent to the Declaration. The text of the Declaration was subsequently incorporated, with some amendments, into an Act of Parliament, famously known as the Bill of Rights. The Declaration and Bill stated that it was illegal for the Crown to suspend or dispense with the law, to levy money without parliamentary assent, or to raise an army in peacetime, and insisted on due process in criminal trials.

The Bill of Rights was designed to control the power of kings and queens and to make them subject to laws passed by Parliament. This concession by the royal family has been dubbed the “bloodless revolution” or more commonly, the “glorious revolution.”


-1776: The United States declaration of independence

The Declaration of Independence, formally adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, announced the United States’ independence from Britain and enumerated to “a candid World” the reasons necessitating this separation. Today the Declaration stands as the best-known document of the American founding, describing not only the U.S. origin, but also its goals and values.

The heart of the Declaration lies in the 27 separate indictments against King George III, whom the founders labelled a tyrant, unfit to rule over a free people. In making such accusations, the authors risked punishment for what the British considered ‘seditious libel’. The Declaration’s indictments are not made, as is often believed, in the name of universally valid natural rights but rather are based upon the legal customs and traditions accepted by the Crown and Parliament. Somewhat ironically, therefore, only as British subjects did the Declaration’s signers have the authority to declare their confederation with Britain broken, and to bring into existence their new identities as Americans. Approved by Congress on 4 July 1776, the Declaration of American Independence stated that America’s 13 colonies were to be “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved”.

Although the American declaration of independence did not promise equal rights for all, it laid the foundations for the modern-day United States promised freedom from the yoke of English tyranny. Signed by delegates from all 13 American colonies – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Bay Colony (including Maine), New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – it became one of the founding documents of the US government, alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Historically, the roots of the American declaration of independence can be traced to America’ resistance to the British attempt to impose heavy taxes on the colonies to pay for expensive wars against France. By early 1770s, American patriots set up a shadow government, and 12 colonies joined them, forming a Continental Congress. In April 1775, hostilities broke out into armed conflict, the movement for independence gathered momentum, and the Declaration was finally adopted in July 1776.

-1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On August 26, 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the French National Assembly, which also was known as the Constituent Assembly, owing to its self-appointed task of framing a constitution for the French nation. This body began as one of three Estates, or orders, within the Estates-General, which had been convened in early May by King Louis XVI. The three orders of which the Estates-General consisted were the nobility, the clergy, and the Third Estate, made up of all other French citizens.

The Declaration was intended to serve as a preamble to the French Constitution of 1791, which established a constitutional monarchy. (A purely republican form of government awaited the Constitution of 1793, after the treason conviction of Louis XVI had led to his execution and the abolition of monarchy).

The Declaration nonetheless echoed Magna Carta in certain key statements, such as by subordinating the monarch to the rule of law (clause 3); by maintaining that, ‘No person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in those cases established by the law, clause 7); and by ensuring that taxation could only be raised by common consent (clause 14). Marquis de La Fayette, the principal author of the Declaration, collaborated with Thomas Jefferson, who had been influenced in turn by Magna Carta. Jefferson’s influence is clearly discernible in clause 1, which declares that, ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’.

-1791: The US Constitution and Bill of Rights

Many of the rights and liberties Americans cherish, such as freedom of speech, religion, and due process of law; were not enumerated in the original Constitution drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, but were included in the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments guarantee essential rights and civil liberties, such as the right to free speech and the right to bear arms, as well as reserving rights to the people and the states. The Bill of Rights has its own fascinating story as a distinct historical document, drafted separately from the seven articles that form the body of the Constitution. But ever since the first 10 amendments were ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights has also been an integral part of the Constitution and is widely accepted as a very important document in the history of American liberty and people’s rights.

After the Philadelphia convention, the absence of a bill of rights emerged as a central part of the ratification debates. Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification, viewed its absence as a fatal flaw. Several states ratified the Constitution on the condition that a bill of rights would be promptly added, and many even offered suggestions for what to include. The provisions outlined in the American bill of rights make it a powerful instrument for the defence of American freedom, till date.

Many scholars view the bill as the first step that Americans took in amending the Constitution in Order to form a more perfect Union, where freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and due process of law are ultimately guaranteed.

Please download and read through the content of the attached PDF(s)

(1. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789; source- constitutionnet.org | 2. US 1971 bill of rights, source- archives.org).


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