Even though the American colonies rebelled against Great Britain in a war that would last eight years and cost thousands of lives, they did not turn away from the British political system that had been engrained in colonial government and politics for the previous 150 years. The Founding Fathers were able to take the best of what the mother country had to offer and turn it to their advantage.

Constitutional Tradition

The Founding Fathers were well aware of the key events and documents of the English constitutional tradition. The Magna Carta, which King John was forced to sign in 1215, gave English citizens certain guarantees that the laws that governed them would be just and that they would have a right to trial by jury. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw the overthrow of a king and the establishment of the English Bill of Rights, which prohibited a standing army in peacetime and guaranteed free elections. This tradition included the principle of representation, meaning only the people could pass the laws that affected them. The English had themselves abrogated this principle in their dealings with the Colonies, which made the Founding Fathers all the more eager to see it preserved in the new United States.

Checks And Balances

By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the political systems of the Colonies were quite similar to those of Great Britain. They had governors, as American states would later have (although these governors were appointed by the British monarch) as well as political assemblies that consisted of the equivalent of Britain’s House of Lords and House of Commons. The Founding Fathers also added the system of checks and balances on executive power, which was essentially what the Magna Carta had accomplished with King John.

Preservation of Liberty

Even more than these particulars, important though they were, the American founders had inherited from Great Britain a basic theory or philosophy of government, based on the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, whose work stated that the government existed for the well-being of its citizens and at their sufferance, that there was a "social contract" between a ruler and those ruled. Thomas Jefferson used the philosophy of John Locke in writing the Declaration of Independence.

A Lesson Learned

In fact, the very heart of the American system of government stems from the work of John Locke. James Monroe, a signer of the Declaration and fifth president of the United States, would write that: "It has been established by the most celebrated writers, but particularly illustrated and explained by ... Mr. Locke that the division of powers of a government ... into three branches, the legislative, executive and judiciary, is absolutely necessary for the preservation of liberty."