Five Key Documents in the History of Freedom

Freedom has a long and hard fought history. There have been many steps, and the struggle continues. And it will continue, forever. There is no way to establish freedom once and for all. It's a value that has to be enacted anew from within each individual, in every place, in every generation.


When you study the history of freedom there are patterns that emerge. For instance, there needs to be a way to demand rights for people. That falls onto two main foundations. Either, people deserve rights because they are citizens; or, people deserve rights because they are humans. Citizen rights and human rights are always the foundational keystones.

Also, individual rights are usually gained in specific circumstances. When the general population is dissatisfied with corruption and abuse, when there are multiple strong leaders, and when some of the powerful and influential people realize that the best way to protect their own rights is to secure universal individual rights. When those things align great things can be accomplished.

This first part about the Charter of Liberties will be slightly longer, because it's where the major innovation took place. After that I will show the same pattern in the four proceeding documents at a more rapid pace.

Charter of Liberties

There is an important change that took place between William the Conqueror taking England in 1066, and Henry Beauclerc signing the Charter of Liberties at his coronation in 1100.

Oaths of office, if we can call king an office, are ancient. For instance, here is the 979 Coronation Oath of Ethelred the Unready.

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In the name of the Holy Trinity, three things do I promise to this Christian people, my subjects; first, that I will hold God's church and all the Christian people of my realm in true peace; second, that I will forbid all rapine and injustice to men of all conditions; third, that I promise and enjoin justice and mercy in all judgments, in order that a just and merciful God may give us all His eternal favor, who liveth and reigneth.

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William the Conqueror had a similar idea. When he took England in 1066 he sought to show his just rule by issuing a statement at his coronation. Here is the entire William Charter.

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William King greets William the Bishop and Geoffrey the Portreeve and all the citizens in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward's day, that every son shall be his father's heir after his father's death; and that I will not that any man do wrong to you. God yield you.

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The William Charter has some unique things. Notice the specific promise about not violating the right of inheritance. Overall though, it's still mostly like the oaths of the past.

William the Conqueror did make some innovations during his reign. He issued a decree about the separation of church and secular courts. But it's really after his death, when his son William Rufus assumed the throne, that major innovations took place. The nobles struggled with Rufus during his entire reign to try to limit his power. His coronation oath started the process, and several charters and decrees that he issued expanded rights and justice and limited the power of the king. Rufus largely ignored these things, but they did lay a foundation. Unfortunately, almost all of the documents from the reign of William Rufus have been lost to history.

After William Rufus died in a mysterious hunting accident with his brother Henry Beauclerc, Henry had to garner support to take office and hold it. The general population had been mistreated under his brother and they were upset, the nobles were upset about being mistreated too. Henry had to negotiate with the nobles because they had the support of the people. The nobles realized that the best way to limit the power of the king was to help secure rights for everyone. Here is the beginning of the fourteen article Charter of Liberties.

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Henry, king of the English, to Bishop Samson and Urso de Abetot and all hisbarons and faithful, both French and English, of Worcestershire, [copies weresent to all the shires] greeting.

1. Know that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of thewhole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom; and becausethe kingdom had been oppressed by unjust exactions, I, through fear of god andthe love which I have toward you all, in the first place make the holy churchof God free, so that I will neither sell nor put ot farm, nor on the death ofarchbishop or bishop or abbot will I take anything from the church's demesne orfrom its men until the successor shall enter it. And I take away all the badcustoms by which the kingdom of England was unjustly oppressed; which badcustoms I here set down in part:

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Notice how he is acknowledging the unjust rule and violations of the government against the people. People demand rights when there is a breach of the public trust. That is when people fight for freedom, and that is when they get it. The Charter of Liberties laid the foundation for the next one-thousand years of freedom documents.

Magna Carta

The history of every single one of these documents is incredibly complex. But the pattern remains the same. King John was wielding tyrannical power over the people. Neither the common people nor the nobles liked it. They decided to stand up to him and demand rights. There was a series of wars. The first truce was called in 1215 when King John and the rebel barons signed the Magna Carta Libertatum. This was a huge step. It was the first step in moving away from the idea of the divine right of kings and toward just rule coming from the consent of the people. By securing rights for all citizens and limiting the royal powers, including the first steps toward a parliament, the Magna Carta stands as a major turning point in history.

Here is the final article from the Magna Carta of 1215.

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63. Wherefore it is our will, and we firmly enjoin, that the English Church befree, and that the men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaidliberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably, freely and quietly,fully and wholly, for themselves and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in allrespects and in all places for ever, as is aforesaid. An oath, moreover, hasbeen taken, as well on our part as on the part of the barons, that all theseconditions aforesaid shall be kept in good faith and without evil intent. Given under our hand--the above-named and many others being witnesses--in themeadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenthday of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.

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Notice that the king had to give concessions. The liberties and rights were concessions that the king had to give because the people and the nobles aligned together and demanded them.

Notice also, that when the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton wrote the Magna Carta he emphasized that it stood on the foundation laid down by the Charter of Liberties. The freedom experienced in every age is a gift from the people that have fought for it in the past, and a legacy to be preserved. The history of freedom builds upon itself step by step.

Petition of Right

Now we're starting to get into the more modern documents that we'll recognize as useful and valid to this day. The 1628 Petition of Right has parts that directly led to the third, fifth, sixth, and seventh amendments in the American Bill of Rights over a century later.

A full parliament had developed in England by this time. When the parliament wouldn't approve more taxes for the wars of King Charles I, he decided to collect the taxes by force anyway. The people that didn't pay went to prison. He stationed soldiers in people's homes, and declared martial law.

When the parliament resisted this tyranny he tried to dissolve them. They didn't comply. Then he tried to restrict their speech. They didn't comply.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords worked together and declared that the king was prohibited from infringing on certain rights of the citizens. Look at article four.

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And in the eight-and-twentieth year of the reign of King Edward III, it was declared and enacted by authority of parliament, that no man, of what estate or condition that he be, should be put out of his land or tenements, nor taken, nor imprisoned, nor disinherited nor put to death without being brought to answer by due process of law.

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Due process is debated to this day, every day, in every free nation on the face of the earth.

The Commons and the Lords working together, with the support of the people, to secure rights for all people. This is how freedom is won.

English Bill of Rights

Oh, the Glorious Revolution! When Prince William of Orange and Mary came from the Netherlands to England to take the crown they were welcomed by the citizens of England, because King James II had violated the public trust with his despotic rule.

William and Mary were read the Declaration of Right in February of 1689. It listed 13 violations committed by King James II, and 13 clauses detailing the rights of citizens and limiting the power of the monarchy. Many of which we would recognize as important now, including but not limited to: the right to petition, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to a trial by jury. The Declaration of Right was incorporated into the Bill of Rights that passed in December of 1689.

At the coronation of William and Mary in April they also took the new oath as laid out in the Coronation Oath Act. Here's the beginning of the oath.

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The Arch-Bishop or Bishop shall say,

Will You solemnely Promise and Sweare to Governe the People of this Kingdome of England and the Dominions thereto belonging according to the Statutes in Parlyament Agreed on and the Laws and Customs of the same?

The King and Queene shall say,

I solemnly Promise soe to doe.

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Notice that this makes the Parliament more powerful than the king and queen.

The pattern remains the same. There's corruption in the government and a tyrannical use of power, people high and low band together to limit the power of the ruler and secure individual rights for everyone. The Toleration Act leading to steps in religious freedom was also passed that same year. 1689 was an important year in the long story of freedom.

American Bill of Rights

Not including a bill of rights in the American Constitution was a highly controversial debate for the Founding Fathers of the United States, and a grave error. Some of the most important Founding Fathers did not sign the U. S. Constitution, including: John Hancock, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Richard Lee, and Samuel Adams.

Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and George Mason would only support the Constitution with the addition of a Bill of Rights. Just a few months before the Congress approved the Bill of Rights in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison where he addressed the fact that even these amendments weren't strong enough protections of individual rights. Jefferson wrote, "Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can." To help safeguard against this limitation the Founding Fathers included the Ninth Amendment, as you can see here.

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The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

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The American Bill of Rights is one of the greatest documents in the history of human freedom. Notice that the entire founding of the United States of America is based on resistance to political corruption, by a population of citizens, with leaders willing to risk everything to secure liberty enshrined in individual rights.

Concerning Other Steps

Each of these situations is highly complex. Carrying out ideals in the practical world is difficult, to say the least. Ideals set a direction, but can never be fully reached. Every single struggle for freedom is important in preserving and securing individual rights for the current and future citizenry.

From the ancient Frostathing Law of Norway, to the American Declaration of Independence. From Solon's Athenian Constitution, to the Universal Declaration of Rights. The tyranny of kings and councils and majorities has set itself against the individual rights inherent as the lifeblood of humanity.

Great victories have been won. From the Massachusetts Body of Liberties to the Pacem in Terris encyclical. From the Habeas Corpus Act to the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. And it will never end.

The process has been, and always will be, ongoing. It is up to the people to fight against corruption and tyranny, to work together to secure individual rights, to demand justice for themselves and future generations. To never surrender and never despair, and to answer the grand call of individual freedom for all.

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To read more from Jeff go to JeffThinks.com or JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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