[Updated: January 25, 2005]

Questions to keep in mind:

  • what is a Bill of Rights? (what is a "Bill"? what is a "Right"?)
  • can you give an example of one?
  • are Americans the only ones to have a Bill of Rights?
  • why are they important?
  • who creates them? why are they created?
  • whose rights are to be protected? against whom are their rights protected? why do their rights need protection? who have been left out of this protection?
  • do Bills of Rights work as intended?
  • when was the first Bill of Rights created?
  • what are some of the most important historical examples of Bills of Rights?
  • how many countries today have a Bill of Rights?
  • who has, or should have, rights?
  • what is the best way to protect these rights? is a written Bill of Rights the best way?
  • how do you think existing Bills of Rights might be improved?


Some Historical Examples of Bills of Rights

Medieval Period




  • The French Civil Code (Napoleonic Code) (1804)
  • The Constitution of Belgium (February 7, 1831) - PDF (2.5MB)
  • Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments" and "Resolutions" adopted by the Senaca Falls Convention of July 1848 - PDF (4.7MB)
  • "The Basic Rights of the German People" in The Constitution of the German Reich (1849) - PDF (2.1MB)
  • Frederick Douglass, "Fourth of July Oration" on July 4th, 1852 - PDF (1.7MB)



  • The Founders' Constitution, ed. Philip K. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987). Also online at The Founders' Constitution (hosted by the University of Chicago Press).
  • The American Republic: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002). Also available for purchase from Liberty Fund's online catalogue.
  • The Democratic Tradition: Four German Constitutions, ed. Elmar M. Hucko (Oxford: Berg, 1989).
  • Frederick Douglass, "Fourth of July Oration" (1852) in What Country Have I? Political Writings by Black Americans, ed. Herbert J. Storing (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970).
  • The Constitution of Belgium (February 7, 1831) in Constitutions of Nations, vol. 1 Afghanistan to Finland, ed. Amos J. Peaslee (Concord, N.H.: Rumford Press, 1950).
  • Olympe de Gouges, "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen" (1791) in Women, the Family, and Freedoom: The Debate in Documents, vol. One, 1750-1880, ed. Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford University Press, 1983).
  • Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments" and "Resolutions" adopted by the Senaca Falls Convention of July 1848 in Women, the Family, and Freedoom: The Debate in Documents, vol. One, 1750-1880, ed. Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford University Press, 1983).


Some Keys Points about Bills of Rights

Bills of Rights (BoR) have a number of features in common:

  • they are claims of "right" (or privilege) by one group of people who feel agrieved by the actions of another person or group of people who are accused of violating those rights previously, e.g.
    • English nobles vs King John in 1215
    • a dissenting religious group (Puritans) vs. the established Church (Anglicans) in 17thC
    • American colonists vs the British Crown in 1775-76
    • the new American states vs. new Federal Government in 1791
  • the rights claimed are for the benefit of a particular group and are usually not to be applied unviersally, even if the language is universal ("all men are created equal"), e.g.
    • nobles vs. King in 1215
    • property owning white men vs. King in 1776 and 1789
    • ethnic Germans vs. King in 1849
  • some other group is always excluded from the group asserting these claims to rights
    • non-property owning men
    • women
    • slaves or ex-slaves (Africans)
    • native people
    • children
  • BoR are often the result of a violent struggle (war, revolution, civil disturbance) between the group claiming that their rights be recognized and the established power, e.g.
    • defeat of King John at the battle of Runnemede
    • the American War of Independence (Revolution) 1775-1783
    • the French Revolution 1789 - execution of King
    • the Haitian Revolution 1790s - free Africans vs. Emperor Napoleon
    • 1848 Revolution in Europe
    • 13th Amendment recognizing the abolition of slavery after American Civil War (1865)
    • right to vote for women after WW1
    • the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in the US
    • United Nations' Universal Declaration following devastation of WW2 (1948)
  • the list of grievances and enumeration of rights mentioned in any given BoR is a very good indication of what was most bitterly fought over in the war, revolution, civil disturbance which preceded the declaration of those rights. Although this can be specific to a particular place and time, there are some common elements:
    • opposition to unfair taxation
    • opposition to stationing ("quartering") of troops
    • persecution of a particular religious belief or ethnic group
    • opposition to the arbitrary power of the King or government
    • censorship of criticism of the King or government
    • demand by excluded groups to particpate in political decision-making (Parliament)
    • demand for equal treatment before the law
    • demand for protection of property from unjust seizure

Other interesting things about BoRs

  • as time has passed previoulsy excluded groups have gradually been included in the group claiming rights (see handout)
    • women's civic rights and right to own property recognized in 20thC (in late 19thC in Australia and New Zealand)
    • Black Civil Rights in 1950s and 1960s in US
    • Aboriginal Land Rights in Canada, US and Australia in 1970s
    • children today
    • animals tomorrow?
    • intelligent computers and robots and aliens next century?
  • the claim to certain rights has changed over time from demands
    • that the King or government leave people alone to enjoy their individual rights to "life, liberty and property" (17thC and 18thC) (negative rights) to
    • demands in the 20thC that governments provide people with their right to proper food, health, education (positive rights)
  • there are two main historical traditions in the development of Bills of Rights
    • the Anglo-American tradition (17th and 18thC) - both written and unwritten
    • and the French Civil Code tradition (19thC and 20thC) - written
    • see handout


Online Editions of Bills of Rights

The Founders' Constitution [A Joint venture of the University of Chicago Press and Liberty Fund, Inc.] -

The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy -

The Human and Constitutional Rights Home Page [Arthur W. Diamond Law Library at Columbia Law School] -

  • Documents -

The Constitution Society -


Class Activities

1. Put yourself in the shoes (i.e. try to act and think like they would at the time) of an inhabitant of the Americas in the 17th or 18thC and write your own Bill of Rights from the perspective of one of the following individuals:

  • a Puritan minister
  • a large land-owning and slave-owning farmer
  • a small land-owning farmer
  • a merchant
  • a run-away slave
  • a freed Haitian slave
  • a young female school teacher
  • a tribal Native-American

2. Imagine yourself to be the citizen of a newly created state. You have the chance to write a Bill of Rights for your new country. What should it include?

3. Imagine that you, the students of Allisonville E.S., have staged a successful revolt against the Principal and teachers, that you have called for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, and that you have a chance to draft a Bill of Students' Rights. What should it include?

See Worksheet on Drafting Your Own Bill of Rights.