How Did British Traditions Affect Our Government?

How Did British Traditions Affect Our Government?

When our Founding Fathers sought inspiration in forming our government after the American Revolution, it was to the mother country of Great Britain -- at the time, the world’s most powerful parliamentary democracy -- that they turned. It may at first seem like a contradiction that the very country we had fought a bloody war to get away from was in fact the country that inspired so many of our political traditions. But to turn away from British traditions would, in a sense, be like turning away from our birthright.

1 Early British Traditions

The Magna Carta, which British nobles forced King John to sign in 1215, established for the British people the important right of trial by jury -- a foundation stone of American democracy and jurisprudence. During England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British people overthrew King James II because he was acting contrary to their wishes; Parliament insisted his successors sign the English Bill of Rights, which prohibited a standing army during peacetime and allowed private citizens the right to bear arms -- both hallmarks of the American Bill of Rights.

2 Two-House Legislatures

Even before the Revolution, American colonies had bicameral (two-house) legislative bodies modeled after the British Parliament with its House of Lords and House of Commons. The framers of the U.S. Constitution echoed this system in calling for the creation of the Senate and House of Representatives, in part because the all-important principal of self-representation had been abrogated by the British themselves, in passing laws such as the Stamp Act without the permission of the American colonists.

3 Sergeants-At-Arms

The effect of British political traditions extends even to our legislative use of the position of sergeant-at-arms. Sergeants had long functioned as bodyguards for British kings, but in 1415 King Henry V appointed Nicholas Maudit to be the first House of Commons sergeant-at-arms. Today, sergeants-at-arms are used in Senate and House of Representatives and in 49 of our state legislatures. While their function has in the past been largely honorary, modern realities have made many sergeants-at-arms heads of security, echoing back to their original bodyguard role.

4 We the People

Perhaps most importantly, American patriots and intellectuals such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson have passed on to us via the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution the thinking of influential 17th and 18th century Enlightenment philosophers including the Englishman John Locke. After the Glorious Revolution, Locke wrote an influential book called “The Second Treatise of Government,” in which he argued that people and their governments had a “social contract” whose legitimacy was the responsibility of both parties. People agreed to obey the just laws of their government; the government in turn agreed to be responsive to the people’s needs. If the government failed to represent the people, it could be deposed. It is no accident the Constitution begins with “We the People”; these words descend directly from British political tradition.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.