December 19, 2007


The Big Question: What was the Magna Carta, and are its contents relevant to us today? (Andy McSmith, 19 December 2007 , Independent)

What was special about it?

Until 1215, the King of England was an absolute monarch. In theory at least, the will of the King was the law of the land. In practice, there were always powerful nobles who would challenge his power, if they thought they could get away with it. There were no rules in the contest between King and barons, except one – whoever had the strongest army got what he wanted. Then on 15 June, 1215, King John met a delegation of barons on Runnymede island, and between them they drew up a document, written in Latin, which they called the Big Charter, setting out the limits and terms of the King's powers. It is seen as the symbolic beginning of the rule of law in England. For the first time, the English had something in writing to protect them against arbitrary rule.

In the Meadow That Is Called Runnymede (David W. Hall, Acton Institute)
The Magna Carta was a medieval catalogue of liberties, rights, and safeguards from governmental intrusion. It did not arise, however, apart from convulsion. King John’s heavy taxation led to mounting opposition, and several preliminary charters were drafted by leading clergymen. By Christmas of 1214, the barons and clergymen were united in opposition to John, but the revolution was stalled until Easter of 1215 by a promise from John to grant select concessions. After that time, civil war broke out, only to be calmed by the June 1215 accords.

Reflecting the medieval theology of its time, this document was a benchmark of civic liberties, rooted in the Christianity of the day. Although it is seldom admitted by modern secularists, medieval political theories were robust and fairly well developed. The charter addressed subjects ranging from inheritance laws to the payment of widows’ debts, from fair standards of trade to judicial protocols. This signal event, rather than indicating the crudity of unenlightened people (clause 42 included an early form of open immigration policy, though clause 51 banished foreign knights and mercenaries), was a sign of maturity in political thought. Moreover, it was an example of the impact of Christian teaching on matters of government. It is not difficult to detect the religious fabric of the Magna Carta. Its preamble explicitly refers to the counsel of the clergy, including Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and other bishops. Some experts believe that if the charter was not actually drafted by Archbishop Langton, he at least was the animating force behind it.

The Magna Carta begins with an overt religious affirmation (“John, by the Grace of God, King of England”) and places the signers in impressive company for an eternal purpose: “We, in the presence of God, and for the salvation of our own soul, and the souls of all our ancestors … to the honor of God, and the exaltation of the Holy Church and amendment of our Kingdom.…” One of the first clauses granted freedom to the English church to elect its own leaders–a controversial idea for its day but one that later stood in the vanguard in other reformation movements. The free church was to have a prominent role in politics, and one clause even guaranteed that the King could summon archbishops, bishops, and abbots for counsel.

Beyond questions of the relationship between the church and the monarchy, the Magna Carta set forth a number of important principles of limited government. For example, trials were to be fair, fines were not to be levied for inconsequential matters, personal property was not to be confiscated without remuneration, taxes were to be raised only by “common counsel,” and imprisonment was not to be allowed without “legal judgment of [one’s] peers or by the laws of the land.” Moreover, previous unjust fines or confiscation of property were to be remitted, and a representative council of twenty-five barons was created “for god and for the amendment of our kingdom.”

This ground-breaking pinnacle of pre-modern thought did not create an international movement at first. What began as a council of twenty-five barons at Runnymede’s meadow later expanded into a global movement supporting responsive and free government.

To underscore the dramatic advance of the Magna Carta, we can say that it was not so much customs that were guaranteed but human freedoms–a seismic shift in political presuppositions. Whereas earlier treaties focused on “dignities” or customs, the charter discussed liberties. To further ensure its longevity, the Magna Carta was re-confirmed and republished in many languages and on different occasions. It was even ordered to be read twice a year in cathedral churches in 1297 and renewed yearly at Easter in other parishes. Into the early seventeenth century, it had been reiterated so often that Puritan parliamentarian John Selden once argued against a 1628 resolution: “Magna Carta has been confirmed thirty-two or thirty-three times, and to have it confirmed thirty-four times I do not know what good it will do.”

Puritans in seventeenth-century England would later appeal to the Magna Carta as part of their justification for the overthrow of the monarchy. Prior to this surge of Puritan political thought in England, medieval advances had set the stage for limited reform. In his History of Political Theories from Luther to Montesquieu, William Dunning argues that the propriety of councils to blunt the power of tyranny had become an acceptable notion by the Reformation. From the Magna Carta on, these political notions would dominate. Earlier, medieval constitutionalists had asserted that, as Dunning writes, “the king, while subject to no man, is always subject to law.” Notwithstanding, Dunning admits that such rights of Englishmen prior to the seventeenth century were neither well defined nor clearly expressed in constitutions. The period from these medieval constitutionalists to the seventeenth century saw halting strides toward popular sovereignty. Principled formulation for limited government, however, was not grounded in lasting theory nor accepted by the masses until after the Reformation.

A century after Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, many of his ideas–ideas that became part of the fabric of America–were further pioneered in London. Not only did the British Puritans introduce new ideas of ecclesiastical government, but they also permitted those views–ground-breaking for the time–to have an impact on their view of what the state could and should do. Toward the end of the Elizabethan period, the Puritans had convinced many people of the following notions: Monarchy, if not in service of the populace, was not immune from reformation attempts; the church was its own lawful governmental sphere, and hence free from civil interference; neither the church nor the state was divinely mandated to possess absolute power–indeed, republican or federal structure was more conformable to God’s plans; the church was free to resist, oppose, or seek the deposition of ungodly rulers in some cases; and freedom of speech, assembly, and dissent was condoned and would soon expand into numerous segments of society.

The WoT is nothing more than the extension of Runnymede to the Islamic world.

THE REST IS GLOSS (Brothers Judd, 6/15/05)
The Secret History of the Magna Carta: Its most far-reaching provisions aren’t the ones we remember. (Peter Linebaugh, Boston Review)

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 19, 2007 6:19 AM

By all means, extend the Magna Carta to the Muslim world.

Recall, however that the Magna Carta was not the product of speeches and majority votes.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 19, 2007 5:00 PM

Rule Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish, shalt flourish great and free,The dread and envy of them all.

Posted by: JAB at December 19, 2007 10:19 PM