History offers a catalogue of freedom’s victories over the centuries and millennia: Hammurabi, Moses, Greco-Roman political thought, the Magna Carta, the Tübinger Vertrag, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the United States Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the United States Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, to name only a few.
But freedom has also had some big defeats.
In 1628, the British Parliament was frustrated by King Charles I, who, like James I before him, claimed absolute authority for himself as monarch. Charles did violence to the concept of political liberty, which had been around since even before the Magna Carta of 1215.
Parliament wanted to defend the people’s freedom against an overly ambitious king. To do this, Sir Edward Coke, a leader in Parliament and a long-time supporter of limits on royal power, suggested that Parliament draft a document defining the rights of the people and defining curbs on the king’s power.
Coke, whose surname rhymes with ‘cook’ despite its spelling, supervised the assembly of a truly brilliant document, as historian John Barry writes:
Commons adopted Coke’s suggestion, and he was central in drafting the petition. It incorporated the earlier resolutions prohibiting forced loans, benevolences, or “any tax, tallage, aid, or other like charge not set by common consent, in parliament.” It prohibited billeting soldiers in homes and the exercise of martial law in peace. It required honoring writs of habeas corpus. And it reaffirmed Magna Carta and associated statutes, reaffirmed the principle older than Magna Carta that “no freeman may be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties … or in any manner destroyed, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land … [and] 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 … no offender of what kind so ever is exempted from the proceedings to be used.”
England was on the verge of a major breakthrough: another increase in legal rights for citizens, another round of limitations on the royal government.
Both houses of Parliament approved the text. It was sent to Charles II for approval. Why would a monarch accept boundaries on his power? Charles needed Parliament to approve a budget to fund some of his military adventures on the continent. So there was a reason for him to agree, and a chance that he would.
But Charles at first refused to agree to the Petition of Right. After discussions, he begrudgingly agreed to it, but then almost immediately reneged.
The Petition of Right didn’t manage to achieve a significant increase of freedom for English citizens in 1628. It served a purpose, however, inasmuch as it cast a bright light on the king’s unwillingness to honor the people’s liberty.
The king’s refusal to embrace the Petition of Right was one of several causes which ultimately led to the English Civil War (1642 to 1651), and led to the king’s beheading.
Both the English Civil War and the abdication of James II (1688) laid the groundwork for the eventual adoption of the English Bill of Rights (1689). The ideas in the Bill of Rights were similar to the ideas in the Petition of Rights.
After these ideas were first proposed, it took an additional 61 years before the rights and liberties of the English people were finally codified.