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The legal historian Hazeltine wrote in an essay commemorating the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta that the American colonists regarded Magna Carta as the “bulwark of their rights as Englishmen” (1917)

As part of the 700th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the great Scottish legal scholar McKechnie edited a new edition of the document and Malden edited a collection of commemorative essays for the Royal Historical Society. In one of those essays Hazeltine examined "The Influence of Magna Carta on American Constitutional Development" and concluded that:

English constitutional statutes and cases were, as their “birthright,” of fundamental importance to the English colonists of America in their struggles with colonial and imperial authorities. In the earlier Stuart reigns Magna Carta, as the greatest of all English statutes of liberty, was regarded by the colonists as a bulwark of their rights as Englishmen. As the seventeenth century advanced, the great constitutional struggles in England were reflected in the colonies; and the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement (1701) took their place beside Magna Carta in the minds of the colonists as statutory guaranties of the rights of Englishmen, both at home and away from home, in respect of life, liberty, and property.

If, for the moment, we view the whole system of English Common Law as partly public and partly private law, even though English legal thought does not draw a sharp distinction between the two, we may the more easily grasp the early attitude of the colonists towards the law of the home-land. Reinsch has expressed this attitude in these words: “English colonists, in their general ideas of justice and right, brought with them the fruits of the ’struggle for law’ in England…. Most of the colonies made their earliest appeal to the Common Law in its character as a muniment of English liberty, that is, considering more its public than its private law elements.” Or, in Channing’s phrase: “So far as [the English Common Law] protected them from the English government and from royal officials they looked upon it as their birthright; so far as it interfered with their development it was to be disregarded”. If we bear this fact in mind, we shall see the more clearly that English constitutional statutes and cases were, as their “birthright,” of fundamental importance to the English colonists of America in their struggles with colonial and imperial authorities. In the earlier Stuart reigns Magna Carta, as the greatest of all English statutes of liberty, was regarded by the colonists as a bulwark of their rights as Englishmen. As the seventeenth century advanced, the great constitutional struggles in England were reflected in the colonies; and the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement (1701) took their place beside Magna Carta in the minds of the colonists as statutory guaranties of the rights of Englishmen, both at home and away from home, in respect of life, liberty, and property. It is for this reason that we must view Magna Carta in its history in the colonies as only part—though a most valuable part—of the whole body of English constitutional law, the Common Law in its character of public rather than private law, the Common Law as it is found in constitutional cases and constitutional statutes.

About this Quotation:

This collection of essays were written to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. The author of the essay on the influence of Magna Carta in the American colonies reminds us that there were several legal documents which were regarded by “Englishmen” as central to their understanding of their liberties vis-à-vis the Crown. They were Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement. For many colonists these were living documents and they jealously protected the liberties defined in them.

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