Monday, June 1, 2015

Magna Carta

.... It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.

Magna Carta is Latin for “Great Charter.” It was so named not because the men who drafted it foresaw its epochal power but because it was long. Yet, almost immediately, the document began to take on a political significance that justified the adjective in every sense.

The bishops and barons who had brought King John to the negotiating table understood that rights required an enforcement mechanism. The potency of a charter is not in its parchment but in the authority of its interpretation. ....

Magna Carta instituted a form of conciliar rule that was to develop directly into the Parliament that meets at Westminster today. As the great Victorian historian William Stubbs put it, “the whole constitutional history of England is little more than a commentary on Magna Carta.”

And not just England. Indeed, not even England in particular. Magna Carta has always been a bigger deal in the U.S. The meadow where the abominable King John put his royal seal to the parchment lies in my electoral district in the county of Surrey. It went unmarked until 1957, when a memorial stone was finally raised there—by the American Bar Association. ....

Eight hundred years is a long wait. We British have, by any measure, been slow to recognize what we have. Americans, by contrast, have always been keenly aware of the document, referring to it respectfully as the Magna Carta.

Why? Largely because of who the first Americans were. ....

As early as 1637, Maryland sought permission to incorporate Magna Carta into its basic law, and the first edition of the Great Charter was published on American soil in 1687 by William Penn, who explained that it was what made Englishmen unique: “In France, and other nations, the mere will of the Prince is Law, his word takes off any man’s head, imposeth taxes, or seizes any man’s estate, when, how and as often as he lists; But in England, each man hath a fixed Fundamental Right born with him, as to freedom of his person and property in his estate, which he cannot be deprived of, but either by his consent, or some crime, for which the law has imposed such a penalty or forfeiture.” ....

The 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. It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist, in the words of the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, “as Englishmen our ancestors in like cases have usually done.” .... [much more]