Abuses by England’s King John cause a revolt by nobles, who compel him to recognize rights for both noblemen and ordinary Englishmen. This document, known as the Magna Carta, establishes the principle that no one, including the king or a lawmaker, is above the law, and establishes a framework for future documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
The Petition of Right is a statement of the objectives of the 1628 English legal-reform movement that leads to civil war and the deposing of King Charles I in 1649. This important document sets out the rights and liberties of the common man as opposed to the prerogatives of the crown and expresses many of the ideals that later led to the American Revolution.
The Massachusetts General Court formally adopts the first broad statement of American liberties, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The document includes a right to petition and a statement about due process.
The new Charter of Rhode Island grants religious freedom.
John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is published. It provides the philosophical basis for George Mason’s proposed Article Sixteen of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which deals with religion. Mason’s proposal provides that “all Men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.”
Connecticut passes the first dissenter statute and allows “full liberty of worship” to Anglicans and Baptists.
New York publisher John Peter Zenger is tried for libel after publishing criticism of the Royal Governor of New York. Zenger is defended by Andrew Hamilton and acquitted. His trial establishes the principle that truth is a defense to libel and that a jury may determine whether a publication is defamatory or seditious.
The State of Virginia jails 50 Baptist worshipers for preaching the Gospel contrary to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Eighteen Baptists are jailed in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes that support the Congregational church.
Virginia’s House of Burgesses passes the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Virginia Declaration is the first bill of rights to be included in a state constitution in America.
Thomas Jefferson completes his first draft of a Virginia state bill for religious freedom, which states: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” The bill later becomes the famous Virginia Ordinance for Religious Freedom.
The Continental Congress adopts the final draft of the Declaration of Independence on July 4.
The Virginia legislature adopts the Ordinance of Religious Freedom, which effectively disestablished the Anglican Church as the official church and prohibited harassment based on religious differences.
Originally published in New York newspapers as The Federalist and widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the U.S., The Federalist Papers are a unique collection of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay urging ratification of the Constitution. In Federalist No. 84, Alexander Hamilton writes on the subject of the liberty of the press, declaring that “the liberty of the press shall be inviolably preserved.”
Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance. Though primarily a law establishing government guidelines for colonization of new territory, it also provides that “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary also to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The U.S. Constitution is adopted into law on Sept. 17 by the Federal Constitutional Convention and later ratified by the states on June 21, 1788. The U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use.