June 15th marked the 800 year anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Signed by King John in a meadow at Runnymede in an attempt to quell a rebellion amongst his barons, the charter was violated almost immediately. Not a single of the articles within it is in effect today.
Nevertheless, this is perhaps the single most important historical document in the Western tradition, particularly in America.
The Sons of Liberty, which counted famous Founders Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren and Patrick Henry amongst its ranks, commemorated the refusal by colonial Massachusetts’s legislature to rescind a letter circulating throughout New England that protested the taxes mandated by the Townshend Acts with a silver bowl. Etched into one side is a liberty cap, a torn up general warrant, a Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.
This piece of history, sadly now obscure, reveals just how important the Founders considered Magna Carta. It seems anachronistic now, that Revolutionary era rebels would uphold a defunct charter passed in a nation whose government they considered tyrannical.
But Magna Carta is the fountainhead of what are now termed “civil liberties.” The charter first officially recognized recognition that rule of law was a concept more concrete and equitable than the whim of a “divinely inspired” monarch. Under the charter, the king’s power was to be checked by a group of 25 barons. Anytime four agreed that some monarchical action violated the provisions laid out in the charter, they were to “petition to have that transgression redressed without delay.”
The king then had forty days to rectify his offense before the matter was brought before the entire council, which had power to seize the king’s affects until he took action to correct his transgression. Further, the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” roughly analogous to the power granted the council of barons, is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution.
Property rights, the foundation for individual liberty, were also protected. Magna Carta re-enforced the idea that property was inviolable and held by the person who owned it. Considering feudal society, where serfs were essentially slaves and even lords held their land on condition of the king’s good graces, was entirely based off patronage, this is a significant shift. Nevertheless the surety that “no constable or other bailiff of [the king] shall take corn or other provisions from anyone without immediately tendering money therefor,” is one example of an edict that reaffirms property being subject to equitable rule of law. This was made further sacrosanct in the American Constitution. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” against warrantless searches and seizures.
Though blind justice, where each individual is equal in the eyes of the law, is lacking from the caste-system of punishments laid out in the Magna Carta, it nevertheless marks the first instance where now widely accepted Western ideals of liberality entered into government. The 800-year old document, arcane though it may be, is worthy of careful study and reverence, especially in America, which clearly owes so much of its federalistic philosophy to its precedence.