Personal Property Rights

The legal rights of the American people are an important part of the Constitution. The issue of colonial rights has led American colonists to revolt against Great Britain. Yet, the American attachment to legal rights results from having been a British colony for many, many years.

The American idea of legal rights in the 1700’s was based upon the British view of the “rights of Englishmen.” Many of those rights actually applied to English women as well as to the English men. The American colonists, as British subjects, believed that those rights were also theirs.

The rights of Englishmen included:

  • Free speech and free press
  • The right to a fair trial by a jury
  • The right to bail for an accused person
  • Protection of personal property rights
  • Protection against an oppressive government
  • An increased degree of self-government.

During the late 1760’s and early 1770’s, many colonists accused the British of violating the rights of American colonists. They especially protested against the various British systems of taxation that were introduced. There were no American colonists elected to the British parliament that voted for the taxes. To many colonists this was “taxation without representation.” The British government denied this charge. They pointed out that members of the British parliament represented all of Great Britain and its colonies. This difference in outlook worsened relations between Britain and its colonies.

The colonists rebelled against Great Britain and won their independence in 1783. After 1788, the Constitution established the basis of government in the new United States. It also set forth the legal rights of Americans.

Habeas Corpus

One legal right in the original Constitution was the protection of persons accused of crimes.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution states that the right of “…habeas corpus shall not be suspended…” except in times of great emergency.

What is habeas corpus? Why is this an important legal right? Habeas corpus is a Latin expression meaning, “you should have the body.” These are the first words of a court order, called a writ, directing a jailer to bring a prisoner before a judge. The accused person must then be charged with a crime or set free.

Habeas corpus is an important legal right for two main reasons. First, it makes it impossible for an accused person to be held in jail for long periods of time without being charged with a crime. Second, it enables the accused person to know the charges against him or her. Once the charges are known, the accused can prepare a defense with legal counsel.

Bills of Attainder /Ex Post Facto

Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 of the Constitution states that “No bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed.”

What are bills of attainder? What are ex post facto laws? What is their legal importance? A bill of attainder is a law that punishes a person without a trial. Such persons are punished for what they are, not for what they did. “Attainder” comes from the word “attaint,” meaning a stain upon the honor. During the Middle Ages, many kings punished entire families for the acts of any one or several members of the family. They were declared “attainted,” or touched with the same dishonor, and were not given a trial. The American colonists were determined to prevent such punishments. No American can be punished by a law that singles out a person or group for punishment.

An ex post facto law makes an act a crime even if it was not a crime at the time it was committed. In other words, the law reaches back in time and punishes people for actions that were not unlawful when the act took place. This type of law was used during the Middle Ages and later by kings to rid themselves of troublesome subjects. The American colonists thought this was a cruel law that placed too much power in the hands of rulers and government officials. For this reason, it was banned by the Constitution. No American can be punished by a law that makes a crime of an action that was legal at the time it was committed.

The authors of the Constitution also took steps to protect the legal rights of Americans in their business dealings. This was especially important because there were often different laws in each of the states in the federal republic.


Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 of the Constitution forbids any state to enact a law “…impairing the obligation of contracts.”

Contracts are agreements made between two or more people, groups of people, or businesses. A law that impairs a contract keeps it from being carried out entirely or in part. It would be impossible to conduct business in the United States if the laws in any state could overturn legally drawn contracts. A state can take steps to void a contract only if the contract is illegal, immoral, or dangerous to the health, safety, or morals of the public.

The Constitution as adopted in 1788 provided protection of the legal rights of Americans. Even so, many of these protections were incomplete, and the led to the “Bill of Rights” in the form of amendments to the Constitution. The Constitution was only ratified when its supporters promised to include a Bill of Rights.

Lesson 6 Review

Directions: Answer each question below by writing a strong paragraph that includes supporting information from the lesson. Please cite your outside resources.

A strong paragraph includes a minimum of three to five details from the lesson and is written in Academic English form. For more information on Academic English form, refer to the documents in the Orientation.

1. List three important “rights of Englishmen” and explain why you think these are important.

2. Define the term habeas corpus and explain its importance in the protection of the legal rights of Americans.

3. What is an ex post facto law, and why is it forbidden in the Constitution?

4. Explain the meaning of “bill of attainder” and why it is forbidden in the Constitution.

5. Why do you think the Constitution was ratified only after the provision for amendments was added? Explain fully.

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