London—June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of King John’s seal on the Magna Carta, one of the most significant documents in the history of democracy.
While only three of the Magna Carta’s original clauses are still a part of British law, this canon was foundational in shaping today’s human rights and personal freedoms, including the freedom to practice religion.
In the U.S., it paved the way for multiple governing documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For instance, the Fifth Amendment—”Nor shall any persons be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”—sounds much like the Magna Carta’s 39th clause.
In 13th-century England, King John wasn’t the most popular ruler. His frivolous spending and lack of concern for his people led to heavy taxation. Upset by his selfish monarchical style, unsatisfied barons demanded something be done. Along with several bishops, they drafted 63 clauses that helped rein in King John, claiming all free men—even the monarch—were subject to the law. In 1215, at Runnymede, England, King John placed his seal of approval on the document that has forever shaped the relationship between governing powers and free men in democratic societies.
Translated from its original Latin, the Magna Carta (Great Charter) states, “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 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.” Applied, it meant every free man had the right to a trial by a jury of his peers.
Rebecca Jones, a high school history teacher in North Carolina, says that while Americans may not hear about the Magna Carta as much as the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it is just as valuable.
“The Magna Carta is one of those old, dusty documents that my students are always really frustrated that they have to learn about because ‘it doesn’t apply to me,'” Jones said. “However, I think that we have to understand that this document is just as important to the foundation of the American political system as our own documents are.
“Those ideas of limiting that power of the king would in turn influence the writing of America’s own founding government. It was also one of the first times in European history that we see a limit on absolute monarchy, something that wouldn’t happen in France until the revolution in 1789 or in Russia until 1918,” Jones said. “It’s very important for me to show my students the progression of representative government throughout world history, and eventually to how it would influence our own.”
Mark Durfee agrees. The U.S. history teacher in Texas says the Magna Carta was the “foundational influence” that led to the English Bill of Rights of 1689. In North America, it largely impacted the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619, the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639—”the first written constitution in English Colonial America”—the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Articles of Confederation in 1777. This all led up to the drafting, signing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and 1788 and the Bill of Rights in 1789 and 1791.
Anniversary celebrations in the United States occurred as early as November 2014. The Library of Congress hosted a copy of the Magna Carta for 10 weeks, along with other documents that depicted “how a number of the most basic principles of the U.S. Constitution—consent of the governed, the right to a trial by jury, the right to due process of law, freedom from unlawful imprisonment and limited government under the law—can be traced to Magna Carta,” according to the Library of Congress website.
The American Bar Association will be hosting 600 to 800 U.S. lawyers to commemorate the anniversary at the monument the ABA erected at Runnymede in 1957. Queen Elizabeth II also will make her way to the location where the Magna Carta was born.
The British Library exhibition “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy” is open to the public through Sept. 1 and showcases two of the four existing original copies of the document from King John’s reign. (BP)
Libby Donaldson is a writer for the London Bureau of Baptist Press.