The 800th Birthday of the Magna Carta

This month, on June 15, 2015, we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the famous English document that secured our liberties and rule by law. The Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and a group of rebel English barons in response to “years of the King’s misrule and excessive taxation” and, for the first time in history, placed the rule of the law above that of the King’s desires, stressing democracy and equality over the whims of the all-powerful elite.

The document was signed in Runnymede, England, not far from Windsor, and there are only four copies in existence today. Interestingly, there is no one single original copy. Multiple copies of the original document were distributed to individual English county courts during the summer of 1215, and today only four of those copies survive. One of these copies hangs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., next to two documents it laid the groundwork for: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In Latin, the words Magna Carta mean “Great Charter”; however the document was not named for its anticipated political significance but for its utter length. The Magna Carta, which was written in Latin, was approximately 3,600 words, and was written on a sheet of parchment in vegetable-based ink.

A fascinating article written by Daniel Hannan, was recently published by the Wall Street Journal titled “Magna Carta: Eight Centuries of Liberty”. We recommend this article to anyone interested in the subject, but the following excerpts are of particular interest:

  • Early on, there was a “divergence between English and American conceptions of the Magna Carta. In the Old World, it was thought of, above all, as a guarantor of parliamentary supremacy; in the New World, it was already coming to be seen as something that stood above both Crown and Parliament.”  This difference in interpretations of the document became a precursor  in the Revolutionary War.
  • Speaking of, in contrast to how many Americans conceptualize “the War of Independence,” American Revolutionaries “weren’t rejecting their identity as Englishmen; they were asserting it. As they saw it, George III was violating the “ancient constitution” just as King John and the Stuarts had done.” Indeed the concept of “no taxation without representation” can be found in Article 12 of the Great Charter!
  • “[The] Magna Carta conceived freedom and property as two expressions of the same principle. The whole document can be read as a lengthy promise that the goods of a  free citizen will not be arbitrarily confiscated by someone higher up the social scale. Even the clauses that seem most remote from modern experience generally turn out, in reality, to be about security of ownership.”
  • The concepts of liberty and property were unified in the minds of America’s founders. These men were “shaped in the English tradition” and “saw parliamentary government not as an expression of majority rule but as a guarantor of individual freedom.” … “Liberty and democracy, in our tradition, are not balanced against each other; they are yoked together.”

Daniel Hannan says the Magna Carta is like the Torah of the English-speaking peoples: “the text that sets us apart while at the same time speaking truths to the rest of mankind.” We note that this is a somewhat curious representation, given that Jews did not enjoy any guarantees of the Magna Carta when it was signed. For more interesting facts about the Magna Carta, here is a list of 6 things you may not know about it.

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