Sunday, June 14, 2015

Magna Carta

Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede

Tomorrow is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  On June 15, 1215, King John acceded to the demands of a group of English barons and gave them a say in how their country was run. 

John had not been a popular king.  His subjects were tired of fighting his wars and paying his increasing taxes.  A group of nobles pressured him into a meeting on a field called Runnymede and presented him there with a document laying out a number of clauses.  The most important of these established a committee of 25 barons who could overrule any action taken by the king.

It was a fait accompli.  King John had no option but to affix his seal to the document, which he did. 

John immediately asked the Pope to annul the document, and the Pope obliged.  The king rewrote some of the clauses and there was a little war over the matter, but after John's death in 1216 his successor and other English kings affirmed the original agreement. 

The Magna Carta had altered the nature of English government.  Its influence was durable and, over time, broad. 

More than 400 years later, the Magna Carta was pressed into service as justification for the English Revolution of the 1640s.  At the time, people had had enough of King Charles I, who believed he was the country's divinely appointed and sole ruler. (His reputation as high taxer and his wife's Catholicism in the now-Protestant country did not help.)  Parliament and the people rebelled.

In due course, Charles was convicted of treason and executed.  England rechristened itself a Commonwealth, ruled jointly by a lord protector (Oliver Cromwell) and Parliament. This lasted until the Restoration in 1660, when Parliament invited Charles II to assume the role of monarch. 

In 1685 another king, James II, took the throne and threw down the cudgel.  In his first message to Parliament, he warned that "The best way to engage me to meet you is always to use me well."  

James, a Catholic, then proceeded to promote full religious tolerance; leaders feared he was setting up a return to state Catholicism.  This led to what is called the Glorious Revolution in 1688.  Citing the Magna Carta, Parliament rejected James, who was removed from the throne and exiled to Catholic France.  

The next year, England adopted a Bill of Rights with elements that foreshadowed the United States' document of the same name.  

When 1776 rolled around, American leaders were familiar with the Magna Carta. They also had read English philosopher John Locke's theory of the social contract, which amplified the Magna Carta theme of the rights of barons to include all men. 

Here is how Thomas Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence: 

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers 
from the consent of the governed.” 

Some people now believe that the Magna Carta was just a ripple in England's messy history -- that kings always had been required to negotiate with nobles in order to hold power -- but I believe it is important for at least two reasons.

First, it was, or at least became over time, a binding contract written on paper. The Magna Carta put a ceiling on the king's rights; when he violated one of its terms, subjects could point to the document and object without the need to wheedle or capitulate.

Second, as the rights of citizenship were extended over centuries, foundational documents came to embrace more people -- landholders, then tradesmen, then all men, then people of color and then women.  The Magna Carta, the first of these documents, started the ball rolling.  It was a very good idea indeed.


The memorial pictured above is one of three at Runnymede.  It was funded by donations from members of the American Bar Association in 1957.

Monday is probably not the exact 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, and this altered the calendar year a bit to conform more precisely to the time it takes the earth to circle the sun.  I think June 15th is close enough for the purpose of historical commemoration, however.

While Americans call the document "the Magna Carta," the English refer to it as "Magna Carta."  Americans also used to speak of students attending "the university" or "a university" but now have followed the British and say students "go to university."   Given time, I fully expect that when we are sick, we will be taken "to hospital."  We speak less often of the Magna Carta, and so our American characterization may persist a bit longer.

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