Adam Freedman: Independence, British-Style





[Adam Freedman, the host of the Legal Lad podcast at quickanddirtytips.com, is a lawyer.]

Tomorrow night, as you watch the fireworks, don’t forget to raise a toast to George III. After all, it was the annual celebration of that king’s birthday on June 4 that gave Americans the habit of summer “illuminations.” After 1776, the ritual was cleverly rebranded to commemorate the republic’s birthday, just one month later.

That was just one example of the founders’ uncanny ability to cast British traditions in a new mold. Another example is the document we celebrate today: the Declaration of Independence. Little noticed today is that the Declaration co-opted the very language of English law to reject the mother country.

Four members of the committee assigned by Congress to write the Declaration were lawyers (Ben Franklin was the odd man out). As lawyers do, those draftsmen began by looking for a suitable precedent: was there a handy document available to justify getting rid of a monarch? Indeed there was: the 1689 English Bill of Rights. In that document, Parliament endorsed the ouster of the despotic James II as the only means to vindicate the “rights and liberties of the subject.”

The English Bill of Rights, like the Declaration, emerged at a moment of crisis. In 1689, the exiled James was raising an army to recapture the throne (he ultimately failed). To keep parliamentary opinion firmly against the old king, the Bill of Rights sets forth a long list of grievances against the crown....


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