Declaration of Right, 1689
The Declaration of Right, also known as the Declaration of Rights, is a document written to detail the wrongs committed by the King of England, James II, and specify the rights that all citizens of England should be entitled to and that all English monarchs should abide by. The English Parliament read the Declaration aloud to William of Orange and his wife, Mary (daughter of the absent James II) on 13 February 1689 when the formal offer of the throne was made to them jointly, although it was not made a condition of their acceptance.
Buildup to the Declaration
During the 17th and 18th centuries, many monarchs, including France's Louis XIV and Prussia's Frederick William, moved toward an absolute monarchy and took the power from the hands of "the people" (the aristocracy, the clergy, the cities, the gentry) into the hands of the monarch. From 1625–1642, Charles I of England took all the power from the English Parliament, effectively dismissing them, and ruled without their authority, collecting illegal taxes. Eventually, this led to the English Civil War, which put the power in the hands of the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell from 1642–1649. But after Cromwell's death the monarchy was re-instituted under Charles II.
Subsequently, under the rule of James II, England moved dangerously close to becoming an absolutist state, when James dismissed Parliament and attempted to rule alone. This, too, failed, and James II fled to France. Some time later, a Convention was summoned to decide the political settlement and it was decided that the King had effectively abdicated and that the throne should be offered to William and his wife Mary—James's daughter.
The Declaration of Right consisted of two main parts: a list of the wrongs committed by King James II and 13 clauses that specified the new limits to royal power and authority. The 13 clauses Parliament drew up directly address each of the items on the list of wrongs committed by King James II. The convention, which took statutory effect in December 1689 with William and Mary's royal assent, made Parliament the main governing body and upholder of the law in England.
The list of infractions committed by King James II
Note: In the following, the italic text is the quote from the actual document and the regular text is the paraphrase.
Whereas the late King James the Second, by the assistance of [many] evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom...
- By dispensing and suspending laws without the consent of Parliament. By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without consent of Parliament.
- By prosecuting people for protesting the King's reign. By committing and prosecuting divers worthy prelates for humbly petitioning to be excused from concurring to the said assumed power.
- By creating and using an organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. By issuing and causing to be executed a commission under the great seal for erecting a court called the Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes.
- By the use of funds by Crown for other purposes than the funds were originally granted for by Parliament. By levying money for and to the use of the Crown by the pretense of prerogative for other time and in another manner than the same was granted by Parliament.
- By keeping a standing army in peacetime without the consent of Parliament. By raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law.
- By stripping Protestants of arms and, at the same time, arming Catholics. By causing several good subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when papists were both armed and employed contrary to law.
- By not allowing for the free elections of Parliament. By violating the freedom of election of members to serve in Parliament.
- By doing parliament's business and illegally prosecuting those against him. By prosecutions in the Court of King's Bench for matters and causes cognizable only in Parliament, and by divers other arbitrary and illegal courses.
- By placing corrupt jurors in court to pass judgment and placing jurors without land holdings in courts of high treason. And whereas of late years partial corrupt and unqualified persons have been returned and served on juries in trials, and particularly divers jurors in trials for high treason which were not freeholders.
- By requiring excessive bail charges. And excessive bail hath been required of persons committed in criminal cases to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects.
- By imposing excessive fines. And excessive fines have been imposed.
- By inflicting cruel and illegal punishments. And illegal and cruel punishments inflicted.
- By imposing fines and seizing the property of people before their conviction. And several grants and promises made of fines and forfeitures before any conviction or judgment against the persons upon whom the same were to be levied.
All of which are utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm.
The 13 clauses that limited the power of the Crown
- The power of suspending and executing laws rests in the hands of Parliament. That the pretended power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.
- The Crown does not have the legal authority to dispense or execute laws. That the pretended power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.
- The establishment of any institution of the Catholic Church is illegal. That the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious.
- The imposition of any taxes by the Crown without the permission of Parliament is illegal. That levying of money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal.
- The citizens have the right to petition the king without fear of repercussions. That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.
- A standing army at peacetime without the consent of Parliament is illegal. That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law.
- All Protestants have the right to bear arms for defence. These the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.
- Parliament should be freely elected. That election of members of Parliament ought to be free.
- Members of Parliament have the freedom of speech and their proceedings should not be questioned in any place outside of Parliament. That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.
- Bail fees, excessive fines, and unusual punishments are illegal. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
- All trials now require the presence of jurors and all jurors for trials of high treason must be land owners. That jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned, and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders.
- It is illegal to fine or seize the property of any person who has not been convicted and all previous fines and seizures are void. That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void.
- Parliament should be held frequently to uphold the laws. And that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.
At their coronation on 11 April 1689, William and Mary swore to govern according to "the statutes in Parliament agreed on" instead of by "the laws and customs ... granted by the Kings of England", thus ending the threat of an absolutist reign. This non-violent overthrow of the monarch is known as the Glorious Revolution.
The Declaration of Right was written into the English Bill of Rights which took statutory effect in December 1689 with the royal assent of the king and queen, and subsequently became part of the English Constitution. The cabinet system of the English government evolved from this point onward. The leading ministers formulated policy and ran the business of the country; they held the legislative and executive power. These ministers had seats, and the majority, in the House of Commons. The cabinet became responsible to the House of Commons under the de facto Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. After George II (r. 1727-1760), the power of the monarchy in the decisions of the House of Commons declined drastically.
Some scholars have argued that the Glorious Revolution strengthened finances: "Douglas North and Barry Weingast's seminal account of the Glorious Revolution argued that specific constitutional reforms enhanced the credibility of the English Crown, leading to much stronger public finances." Other scholars argue that the Glorious Revolution was a turning point in history, starting the age of constitutionalism.
The format of a Declaration enumerating various specific wrongs attributed to a King was followed a century later in the American Declaration of Independence - whose authors were clearly familiar with the 1689 document.
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