Wednesday, June 15, 2005

790 Years of Magna Carta

Today is the 790th anniversary of the promulgation of Magna Carta (the "Great Charter"). This commemorative article has appeared, with minor changes, in various newspapers across the United States since the first version was published in 1991. This particular adaptation, with references to the late playwright Bob Cassler, whom I knew through libertarian circles, appeared in The Metro Herald in June 1995:

Magna Carta's Rich Legacy Endures After 780 Years
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Alexandria playwright Robert Cassler's historical drama, Second in the Realm, has its Virginia premiere on June 15 by the FairStage Theatre Company at the Lanier Theatre in Fairfax City. The play tells the story of England's King John and his conflict with Archbishop Stephen Langton, a conflict that led to King John's submission to his barons at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, when he put his seal on Magna Carta ("the Great Charter"). Magna Carta has rightly been called the first great document of freedom in the Anglo-American tradition and its power endures today.

Magna Carta does not have the ringing phrases that every schoolchild knows, such as "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." or "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people...." It is, in fact, a long, pedestrian document written in a sort of medieval bureaucratese. Its importance lies in something other than its prose, even in something other than the meaning it held for the king and barons who composed it.

Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said that Magna Carta tells us that "there is a law which is above the king and which even he must not break." In other words, Magna Carta was the first document to assert that government must be limited and that free men and women have rights that the government cannot take away or violate. As such, Magna Carta is the predecessor of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Constitutional scholar Bernard Schwartz, in his history of the U.S. Bill of Rights called The Great Rights of Mankind, argues that in Magna Carta "one sees for the first time in English history a written instrument exacted from a sovereign ruler by the bulk of the politically articulate community that purports to lay down binding rules of law that the ruler himself may not violate. In Magna Carta is to be found the germ of the root principle that there are fundamental individual rights that the State -- sovereign though it is -- may not infringe."

The two most important principles, hidden among layers of explanations of feudal rights and responsibilities, are what we have come to know as "no taxation without representation" and "the right to a jury trial," including the first protection against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and the first guarantees to individuals of the "due process of law."

On taxation, Chapter 12 of the Charter says: "Scutage or aid shall be levied in our kingdom only by the common counsel of our kingdom," a clause that to the barons at Runnymede meant that the king could not arbitrarily and unilaterally change the terms of their feudal relationship, and that the king could not collect new taxes without the advice and consent of his barons.

On due process, Chapter 39 says: "No free man shall be captured or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed ... except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land." This means that the rule of law -- with all its transparency, accountability, predictability, and reliability under the wary eye of the people assembled as a jury (or, today, as a congress or parliament) -- shall hold precedence over the arbitrary decisions of the king.

Today, a copy of Magna Carta is enshrined at the National Archives alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Original copies -- sealed at Runnymede -- are displayed in English cathedrals. Another copy was purchased by Ross Perot for his personal collection. These honors underscore what the legal historian Frederic Maitland said: that because of its longevity and influence, Magna Carta "rightly becomes a sacred text."

It is awe-inspiring, this document signed by a puny king (as portrayed by Shakespeare in his play, King John) at the insistence of the barons of his kingdom. After nearly eight centuries, it still plays a vital role in the lives of men and women around the globe. One need only look at the recent revolutions in Eastern Europe and Africa to see Magna Carta's intense, inspiring, innate power.

Magna Carta's enduring legacy of limited government and individual freedom should be gladly and frequently celebrated. To this end, Robert Cassler's new play, Second in the Realm, dramatically illustrates the long-lasting strength of Magna Carta. It reminds audiences -- and all of us -- how the impulse to freedom that beats within the human soul was first set on paper 780 years ago "in that meadow that is called Runnymede."

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