By Richard Elfers
How would you feel if you witnessed the aftermath of a shooting of a black man by two white police officers in your yard? This happened last year to my cousin. That event brought her sleepless nights, pain, conflicting emotions and confusion.
Recent testimony at an inquest deeply affected her. She tells me she will never be the same person as before the incident.
Consider a time when you experienced a significant emotional event – a death of a close friend or relative, the sudden coming into wealth, a wedding, a divorce. The list is endless. How did that event change your thinking?
Every one of us has had at least one such emotional period in our lives. Some of us have had several.
The formation of the American psyche also has had many such emotional events that have made us into the nation we are today. Let us reflect on those times of crisis from our English legacy that eventually caused the American Revolution. Examining some of those historical memories will give us an insight into who we are as Americans today and how we will fare during our current time of change.
The Magna Carta of 1215 is an event in English history that gave us the concept of limited government and rule of law. King John ruled over England with an iron fist, driving the barons to civil war. John broke Norman precedent by forcing the nobles’ sons to marry women against their wishes. He also arbitrarily seized land from the nobles and taxed them without permission. Eventually, the barons rebelled and defeated King John at the Battle of Runny Meade.
John was forced to give up some of his power to the barons. Kings, too, were subject to the laws of the kingdom, just like their subjects. This concept of individual rights trickled down from the nobles to allow common people to expect the same rights. Examples are trial by jury and the forbidding of government from housing soldiers in peoples’ homes.
Eventually, over several hundred years, the nobles evolved into the British Parliament. As the merchant class grew in wealth and influence, this class began to wield more power in Commons, the lower house.
Catholic King Charles I, in particular, resented the loss of what he considered his divine right to rule. Charles wanted to wage war, but Parliament resisted giving him the money. Charles also wanted to house his soldiers in peoples’ homes without their permission. In 1628 Parliament forced the king to agree to the Petition of Right. This document strengthened the power of Parliament and also of the people.
The conflict grew between the King and Parliament. It resulted in another civil war that saw the beheading of Charles I in 1649. Twenty-one years later, in 1660, his son, Charles II, was allowed to become king. Commons was clearly in charge.
In 1689, nobles deposed James II. Parliament then brought in new monarchs, Queen Mary and her husband William. Eventually the English monarchs became only figureheads.
Part of Parliament’s agreement with William and Mary became the English Bill of Rights of 1689. This document kept the monarch from raising money without Parliament’s consent, protected free speech in Parliament, allowed Protestants to own weapons, safeguarded the accused from excessive bail and from cruel and unusual punishments.
King George III took away these rights from the American colonists. This brought about the American Revolution. American colonists expected to be treated as Englishmen. Much of the expectations from English history found their way into the U.S. Bill of Rights: free speech, trial by jury, the right to bear arms and others.
We are a nation with a past that came to us from the struggles of our English forbearers. Those experiences, like those of my cousin’s, have changed us forever.
These English rights are now part of our national DNA. No leader can destroy those freedoms today.