Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution,
The Stewardship Doctrine:
I. Historic Overview

C. English Rights Documents

Intergenerational consciousness was as important in pre-revolutionary political thought as it was in pre-revolutionary religion. The basic English rights documents, including the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, contain strong expressions of intergenerational philosophy.

The Magna Carta, like the United States Constitution, begins with an invocation to posterity:

"Know that we [King John], . . . have granted to . . . all free men of our kingdom, for ourselves and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written below, to be had and held by them and their heirs of us and our heirs." f41

It goes on to proclaim:

"Wherefore we wish and firmly enjoin . . . that the men in our kingdom shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely, for themselves and their heirs from us and our heirs, in all matters and in all places for ever . . . ." f42

This document was not intended to govern only those parties existing contemporaneously with its formation; it explicitly anticipated generations to come. Moreover, its intergenerational language was not intended simply to bind posterity to some particular arrangement; the Magna Carta was phrased so as to affirm and protect the interests of generations yet to come. Some of the rights enumerated were political or religious, f43 others economic. f44 And there was yet another category of rights which might today be characterized as "environmental." f45 Significantly, the document recognized not only the right, but the obligation of citizens to resist the king's government when and if that government breached the enumerated intergenerational obligations. f46
The Bill of Rights of 1689 was similarly imbued with a strong sense of intergenerational community. In that document, the "Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in Parliament assembled" proclaimed,

"that all and singular the rights and liberties asserted and claimed in the said declaration are the true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties of the people of this kingdom. . . ; and . . . all officers and ministers whatsoever shall serve their Majesties and their successors according to the same in all times to come. . ." f47

It was only on the basis of such perpetual guarantees that the drafters of the document (parliament) agreed to "most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities for ever . . ." f48 to the sovereignty of the king. As Edmund Burke would remark a century later:

"You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity . . .." f49

When the time came for the colonists across the Atlantic to break from England's control and create a wholly new government, the language of the English declarations of right recommended itself to them. By ordaining and establishing their constitution to themselves and their posterity, f50 the Americans reaffirmed the intergenerational outlook of their ancestors.

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Source material:

Magna Carta - from National Archives and Records Administration
English Bill of Rights from Yale Law
Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges from Yale Law
Massachussetts Body of Liberties from Hanover
Massachussetts Declaration of Rights from State of Mass.
Virginia Declaration of Rights from National Archives and Records Administration

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