What Is Magna Carta? [No. 86]

What Is Magna Carta? [No. 86]

Magna Carta is Latin for “great charter.” Anywhere that there is a written constitution
that has actually force and effect, the hand of Magna Carta is in play. In form, it is simply an agreement between
King John the First and a group of barons who were in open rebellion against him at
the time. In substance, it embodies the idea that the
King and the government are not above the law, and so with that it blazed the path forward
to the idea of rule of law in modern government. King John agreed to Magna Carta in 1215. Successive kings would be required to agree
again to Magna Carta’s terms, typically in times of later turmoil, usually to support
requests for a new set of taxes that the king at the time wanted. Parliament wasn’t even in existence at the
time, but eventually with Parliament in place in the 14th Century, in 1354 it enacted a
statute codifying Magna Carta and making clear that action would be taken only according
to due process of law. Of Magna Carta’s guarantees, only three remain
on the books in England to this day. One states that the English Church shall be
free, and shall her rights entire and her liberties inviolate. There are rights given to the City of London
and towns that they shall have all of their ancient liberties held intact. The most important is one that forever placed
King John and his successors within the rule of law. The king agreed that he would only take certain
action against the persons in his kingdom, mainly the nobles, that he would not seize
them, he would not imprison them, he would not exile them without it being according
to a jury of their peers or by the law of the land, and that became what we know as
due process of law. Going into 1776, having petitioned George
the Third many times, we were asking simply that we would be allowed to observe our birthright
as Englishmen and be accorded our rights. When King George refused that, that is the
point in time at which our founders decided revolution was the only way to secure and
thereafter protect our rights. That is what we see translate into guarantees
that we have now in our Fifth Amendment and our Sixth Amendment as to rights of personal
liberty, and also rights to speedy trial and not taking property without due process of
law. The barons probably didn’t believe that they
were shaking the frame of government to its very foundations. Instead, they simply wanted King John to observe
limits to royal power that his predecessors had observed. One of the greatest lessons taught by Magna
Carta is the idea of repetition. Rights must be recognized to be respected,
and their repetition educates not just the people, but the King, and put limits on his
power, and so the same is true for any government, repeating and recognizing those rights is
important. By 1461, nine successive monarchs had confirmed
Magna Carta over 40 times. These early repetitions ensured that the Crown
would not forget, but must respect the limits that were being placed on his prerogative. That is a lesson that our founders learned
when drafting the Constitution and when enshrining our rights in a bill of rights, in a context
of separated powers, where the government does not have the ability to simply forget
or ignore the rights that are due to the American people. Magna Carta has come to symbolize and
really be one of the signal steps on the path towards the rule of law in England, in America,
and in many nations around the world.

Comments (2)

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  2. Well done. Thank you.

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