Freedom’s Founding Document Turns 800

Jun 15th, 2015 | By | Category: Featured

Without the Magna Carta signed at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215 there would probably be no American Constitution and self government as we know it today may have been impossible to obtain.

By Andrew Harrod, PhD. – Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition

King John was forced to sign the Magda Carta on June 15th, 2015 at Runnymede on the Thames. (From James Doyle's 'A Chronicle of England'

King John was forced to sign the Magda Carta on June 15th, 2015 at Runnymede on the Thames. (From James Doyle’s ‘A Chronicle of England’

“The text of Magna Carta of 1215 bears many traces of haste, and is the product of much bargaining,” the British Library website surprisingly states to individuals examining this iconic document for the first time.  Yet Magna Carta, which turns 800 today, richly deserves being called, in the words of British Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, the “most important bargain in the history of the human race.”

Driven to rebellion by abuses of royal taxation power, nobles imposed the Magna Carta (“Great Charter” in Latin) upon England’s King John at Runnymede on the Thames on June 15, 1215.  The name merely reflects the document’s length, not any contemporary understanding that Magna Carta would become the “greatest constitutional document of all time,” as described by Britain’s most renowned jurist, Lord Denning.  “Most of its clauses deal with specific, and often long-standing, grievances rather than with general principles of law,” the British Library notes.  “Some of the grievances are clear; others can be understood only in the context of the feudal society in which they arose.  The precise meaning of a few clauses is still uncertain.”  Certain Magna Carta articles, for example, regulate borrowing from Jews, reflecting the money-lending role this people played in a medieval society that forbade Christians from earning interest.

In the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, legendary British statesman Winston Churchill described in the 1950s Magna Carta as “entirely lacking in any spacious statement of the principles of democratic government or the rights of man.” “The great watchwords of the future here find no place” in this “practical document to remedy current abuses in the feudal system.”  “Throughout the document,” he nonetheless states, “it is implied that here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break.”  This “alone justifies the respect in which men have held” the “great work of Magna Carta.”

A few passages indicate how, as Smithsonian Magazine writes, “Magna Carta evolved from the practical resolution of a civil emergency into the totemic enshrinement of liberty that it is today.”  Translated from Latin into English, the charter prohibits punishment of a “free man…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”  “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice,” and “only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well” will serve as officials, other articles add.  The American revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation,” Hannan notes, was also “not an abstract principle.”  This came from the charter’s Article 12:  “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.”

“Perhaps the most radical clause in Magna Carta was the 61st,” the British Library concludes, establishing a 25-baron elected commission to monitor and enforce royal settlement compliance with powers of property seizure.  The Soviet Union’s law proclaimed rights, Hannan notes, but, “as Soviet citizens learned, paper rights are worthless in the absence of mechanisms to hold rulers to account.”  Magna Carta’s inauguration of conciliar rule developed directly into Westminster’s Parliament; the “whole constitutional history of England is little more than a commentary on Magna Carta,” wrote noted Victorian British historian William Stubbs.

While modern democracies often debate the role of religion, linkages between faith and freedom are quite prominent in Magna Carta.  Its preamble opens in the name of the “health of our soul and those of our ancestors and heirs, to the honour of God, the exaltation of the holy Church, and the better ordering of our kingdom.”   Like the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, Magna Carta’s first article concerned ecclesiastical freedom and “confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”  This article reflected King John’s struggles with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury; faith’s defense before state power is no new issue.

The “most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world,” as described by the official British Magna Carta anniversary website, seemingly floated down the Thames to the sea and the world beyond.  Thus “it is perhaps in the USA that Magna Carta enjoys the greatest prestige today,” writes British Library researcher Alexander Lock, and the “site of Runnymede itself is dominated by American monuments.”  In America the Declaration of Independence “drew explicitly upon Magna Carta in its itemization of rights and grievances against the British Crown,” the British Library notes.  The United States, as Founding Father John Adams wrote in 1779, has a “government of laws, and not of men.”

The Declaration marked how Magna Carta, as Churchill noted, was to become the “foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the brilliant colonial Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776.  From even more humble origins, President Abraham Lincoln referenced in his Civil War Gettysburg Address the Declaration’s dedication to a “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, Rev. Martin Luther King in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech called upon the United States to redeem for African-Americans the Declaration’s “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”  From Magna Carta’s mustard seed has grown a mighty tree of liberty.

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Scholar David Hall, though, recalls that Magna Carta “did not arise…apart from convulsion,” a reminder from the United States Korean War Memorial that “freedom is not free.”  Like the federal Civil War military measure of the Emancipation Proclamation targeting the Confederacy’s slavery, the Magna Carta was battle-born.  Americans should remember this, as they confront a Barack Obama administration whose governance at times appears more monarchial than presidential.  The Supreme Court appears also ready to invent same-sex “marriage” despite the Declaration’s invocation of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

At the somber beginning of the Cold War, though, Churchill proclaimed in his March 5, 1946, Iron Curtain speech that “we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man.”  These “are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world” and “through Magna Carta…find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”  These “title deeds of freedom…should lie in every cottage home.”

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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