Rights of Englishmen in British America
British settlement of North America began at a time when the idea that Englishmen were entitled to a special heritage of rights and liberties was quickly gaining ground. Even at its earliest stages, the colonists imported language reflecting this heritage into the legal and political arrangements of the communities they founded. In 1606, in the First Charter of Virginia, for example, King James I (reigned 1603–1625) guaranteed to the colonists and their posterity all of the “liberties, franchises, and immunities” possessed by anyone born in England. Every colonial charter included similar provisions.
The crucial importance that Sir Edward Coke attributed to Magna Carta as the basic guarantee of English rights in England was likewise reflected in the laws of the colonies. For instance, at Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1641, Nathaniel Ward, a jurist and Puritan minister who came to America in 1634, compiled “The Body of Liberties” (later, the basis of Massachusetts law), which contained a synopsis of Magna Carta’s guarantees of freedom from unlawful imprisonment or execution, unlawful seizure of property, right to a trial by jury, and guarantee of due process of law. Over time, all of the colonies adopted language from Magna Carta to guarantee basic individual liberties.