Considered the cornerstone of democracy, the Magna Carta celebrates its 800th birthday on June 15, 2015.
What is Magna Carta
Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’, is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John of England as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution. Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. However, buried within them were a number of fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries. Most famously, the 39th clause gave all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of Magna Carta’s core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
What Does Magna Carta Say
Although Magna Carta contained 63 clauses when it was first granted, only three of those clauses remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement 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.
This clause gave all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial. However, “free men” comprised only a small proportion of the population in medieval England. The majority of the people were unfree peasants known as “villeins”, who could seek justice only through the courts of their own lords.
Buried deep in Magna Carta, this clause was given no particular prominence in 1215, but its intrinsic adaptability has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes. In the 14th century Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury; in the 17th century Sir Edward Coke interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings; and it has echoes in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Much of the remainder of Magna Carta dealt with specific grievances regarding the ownership of land, the regulation of the justice system, and medieval taxes with no modern equivalent. It demanded the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, the Medway and throughout England; the dismissal of several royal servants; the standardization of various weights and measures; and so on.
Magna Carta stated that no taxes could be demanded without the general consent of the realm, meaning the leading barons and churchmen. It re-established privileges which had been lost, and it linked fines to the severity of the offence so as not to threaten an individual’s livelihood. It also confirmed that a widow could not be forced to remarry against her wishes.
Magna Carta and the United States
Magna Carta exercised a strong influence both on the United States Constitution and on the constitutions of the various states. However, its influence was shaped by what eighteenth-century Americans believed Magna Carta to signify. Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power. In part because of this tradition, most of the state constitutions included declarations of rights intended to guarantee individual citizens a list of protections and immunities from the state government. The United States also adopted the Bill of Rights, in part, due to this political conviction.
Both the state declarations of rights and the United States Bill of Rights incorporated several guarantees that were understood at the time of their ratification to descend from rights protected by Magna Carta. Among these are freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, a right to a speedy trial, a right to a jury trial in both a criminal and a civil case, and protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
Many broader American constitutional principles have their roots in an eighteenth-century understanding of Magna Carta, such as the theory of representative government, the idea of a supreme law, and judicial review.
Here are some areas where our forefathers utilized this incredible document:
- Journal of The Continental Congress – When the first Continental Congress met in September and October 1774, it drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances claiming for the colonists the liberties guaranteed to them under “the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts.” The colonists sought the preservation of their self-government, freedom from taxation without representation, the right to a trial by a jury of one’s countrymen, and their enjoyment of “life, liberty and property” free from arbitrary interference from the crown. On this title page is a symbol of unity adopted by the congress: twelve arms reaching out to grasp a column that is topped by a liberty cap. The base of the column reads “Magna Carta.”
- State Constitutions – In May 1776, the Continental Congress recommended that the assembly of each colony create a new state constitution “sufficient to the exigencies of affairs.” Every constitution created by these newly independent states included provisions that protected individual rights from actions by the state. Most of them articulated explicit declarations of these rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, prohibition of excessive bail or fines, right to a jury trial, and protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Frequently the last of these rights is expressed in the language of Magna Carta’s Chapter 29, for example, line twelve in North Carolina’s constitution.
- Pennsylvania’s Constitution – Drafted by Benjamin Franklin, George Bryan, James Cannon and others during the summer of 1776, Pennsylvania’s constitution borrowed language from the Stamp Act Congress, the First Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence. Its framers sought to reverse the disproportionate power that a small minority of Pennsylvania landowners held by creating what has often been described as the most democratic constitution in the United States. The Pennsylvania constitution established a unicameral legislature without a senate, an executive assembly without a governor, and voting rights for all free men who paid taxes.
- The Federalist Papers – The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five articles that James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton published anonymously in order to build support in New York for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the widespread adoption of declarations of rights for state constitutions, the members of the Constitutional Convention generally opposed adding a bill of rights to the federal Constitution. In Federalist No. 84, Hamilton argued against the inclusion of a bill of rights, stating: “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.”
- The Bill of Rights – The amendments to the Constitution that Congress proposed in 1791 were strongly influenced by state declarations of rights, particularly the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which incorporated a number of the protections of the 1689 English Bill of Rights and Magna Carta. The fifth through tenth articles of the proposed amendments, which correspond to the fourth through eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution as ratified, embody this tradition most directly, guaranteeing speedy justice, a jury trial, proportionate punishment, and due process of law.
- The US Constitution- William Samuel Johnson chaired the Committee of Style, which included James Madison, Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, who is credited with providing the preamble phrase “We the people of the United States”—a simple phrase that anchored the new national government in the consent of the people rather than a confederation of states.
The Magna Carta represents the first time that concepts of “fairness” were actually reduced to writing and agreed to by the all-powerful king, the very person it would later be construed against. To actually put “fairness” concepts into writing, was revolutionary at the time. The initial document (a small piece of parchment) was revised several times; it wasn’t perfect nor was it done with the best of intentions. However, the idea of adopting fairness standards and putting them in writing, for the purpose of enforcing them later, slowly seeped into the culture and changed society. It laid the foundation to restructure and formalize feudal relationships between groups of very powerful people; and over the centuries, it greatly influenced our founding fathers who, with great thought, care and refined language skills, drafted our own U.S. Constitution.
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