The Common Law and the Enlightenment: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Disourse in the Ancient Constitution

Grant E Stanton


This project intends to show that the impact of the “Ancient Constitutionalists” and their thought upon early modern English jurisprudence was crucial for laying the foundation of “liberal-democratic” ideology in England and the Enlightenment. Although certainly no stalwarts of the common people, the Ancient Constitutionalists, philosophically crystallized by Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), were a group of English jurists and historians who championed many of the modern political-legal institutions we commonly associate with Enlightenment thinking. Intending to merely limit the monarchical authority of the king for the benefit of either parliament or the courts, Sir Edward and the Ancient Constitutionalists unintentionally led the vanguard of modern political discourse and helped institute legal-political doctrines, such as rule of law, constitutionalism, and representative government, that figure heavily in liberal-democratic theory. Consequently, this maturation in the English common law became a catalyst for legal-political experimentation that eventually spread across Europe in what we now call the Enlightenment. As evidenced through the works and writings of Thomas Hobbes, Viscount Bolingbroke, and John Locke, the Constitutionalists were influential foundational framers to emerging modern English philosophy. Unfortunately, the Constitutionalists became quickly obscured given their inconsistent theorizing and historiography and their opposing objectives to Enlightenment thinkers as the movement outgrew England. Even in the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, however, Ancient Constitutionalism is clear in their veneration of rationalism, private property, and the separation of powers in government.


Common Law; Enlightenment; Ancient Constitution; Liberal democratic theory; Sir Edward Coke

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