The Magna Carta + The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history . . . It was written in Magna Carta." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941 Inaugural addressMagna Carta, 1297: IsWidely viewed as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy,
On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta. Confronted by 40 rebellious barons, he consented to their demands in order to avert civil war. Just 10 weeks later, Pope Innocent III nullified the agreement, and England plunged into internal war. Although Magna Carta failed to resolve the conflict between King John and his barons, it was reissued several times after his death. On display at the National Archives, courtesy of David M. Rubenstein, is one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Magna Carta. This version was entered into the official Statute Rolls of England.Enduring Principles of Liberty
Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. The interests of the common man were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement. But there are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day:
"No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land."
"To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice."Inspiration for Americans
During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land."
Magna Carta Translation [Preamble] Edward by the grace of God King of England, lord of Ireland and duke of Aquitaine sends greetings to all to whom the present letters come. We have inspected the great charter of the lord Henry, late King of England, our father, concerning the liberties of England in these words:
Henry by the grace of God King of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou sends greetings to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, sheriffs, reeves, ministers and all his bailiffs and faithful men inspecting the present charter. Know that we, at the prompting of God and for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and successors, for the glory of holy Church and the improvement of our realm, freely and out of our good will have given and granted to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons and all of our realm these liberties written below to hold in our realm of England in perpetuity.
 In the first place we grant to God and confirm by this our present charter for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church is to be free and to have all its rights fully and its liberties entirely. We furthermore grant and give to all the freemen of our realm for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity the liberties written below to have and to hold to them and their heirs from us and our heirs in perpetuity.
 If any of our earls or barons, or anyone else holding from us in chief by military service should die, and should his heir be of full age and owe relief, the heir is to have his inheritance for the ancient relief, namely the heir or heirs of an earl for a whole county £100, the heir or heirs of a baron for a whole barony 100 marks, the heir or heirs of a knight for a whole knight’s fee 100 shillings at most, and he who owes less will give less, according to the ancient custom of (knights’) fees.
 If, however, the heir of such a person is under age, his lord is not to have custody of him and his land until he has taken homage from the heir, and after such an heir has been in custody, when he comes of age, namely at twenty-one years old, he is to have his inheritance without relief and without fine, saving that if, whilst under age, he is made a knight, his land will nonetheless remain in the custody of his lords until the aforesaid term.
 The keeper of the land of such an heir who is under age is only to take reasonable receipts from the heir’s land and reasonable customs and reasonable services, and this without destruction or waste of men or things. And if we assign custody of any such land to a sheriff or to anyone else who should answer to us for the issues, and such a person should commit destruction or waste, we will take recompense from him and the land will be assigned to two law-worthy and discreet men of that fee who will answer to us or to the person to whom we assign such land for the land’s issues. And if we give or sell to anyone custody of any such land and that person commits destruction or waste, he is to lose custody and the land is to be assigned to two law-worthy and discreet men of that fee who similarly will answer to us as is aforesaid.
 The keeper, for as long as he has the custody of the land of such (an heir), is to maintain the houses, parks, fishponds, ponds, mills and other things pertaining to that land from the issues of the same land, and he will restore to the heir, when the heir comes to full age, all his land stocked with ploughs and all other things in at least the same condition as when he received it. All these things are to be observed in the custodies of archbishoprics, bishoprics, abbeys, priories, churches and vacant offices which pertain to us, save that such custodies ought not to be sold.
 Heirs are to be married without disparagement.
 A widow, after the death of her husband, is immediately and without any difficulty to have her marriage portion and her inheritance, nor is she to pay anything for her dower or her marriage portion or for her inheritance which her husband and she held on the day of her husband’s death, and she shall remain in the chief dwelling place of her husband for forty days after her husband’s death, within which time dower will be assigned her if it has not already been assigned, unless that house is a castle, and if it is a castle which she leaves, then a suitable house will immediately be provided for her in which she may properly dwell until her dower is assigned to her in accordance with what is aforesaid, and in the meantime she is to have her reasonable necessities (estoverium) from the common property. As dower she will be assigned the third part of all the lands of her husband which were his during his lifetime, save when she was dowered with less at the church door. No widow shall be distrained to marry for so long as she wishes to live without a husband, provided that she gives surety that she will not marry without our assent if she holds of us, or without the assent of her lord, if she holds of another.
 Neither we nor our bailiffs will seize any land or rent for any debt, as long as the existing chattels of the debtor suffice for the payment of the debt and as long as the debtor is ready to pay the debt, nor will the debtor’s guarantors be distrained for so long as the principal debtor is able to pay the debt; and should the principal debtor default in his payment of the debt, not having the means to repay it, or should he refuse to pay it despite being able to do so, the guarantors will answer for the debt and, if they wish, they are to have the lands and rents of the debtor until they are repaid the debt that previously they paid on behalf of the debtor, unless the principal debtor can show that he is quit in respect to these guarantors.
 The city of London is to have all its ancient liberties and customs. Moreover we wish and grant that all other cities and boroughs and vills and the barons of the Cinque Ports and all ports are to have all their liberties and free customs.
 No-one is to be distrained to do more service for a knight’s fee or for any other free tenement than is due from it.
 Common pleas are not to follow our court but are to be held in a certain fixed place.
 Recognisances of novel disseisin and of mort d’ancestor are not to be taken save in their particular counties and in the following way. We or, should we be outside the realm, our chief justiciar, will send our justices once a year to each county, so that, together with the knights of the counties, that may take the aforesaid assizes in the counties; and those assizes which cannot be completed in that visitation of the county by our aforesaid justices assigned to take the said assizes are to be completed elsewhere by the justices in their visitation; and those which cannot be completed by them on account of the difficulty of various articles (of law) are to be referred to our justices of the Bench and completed there.
 Assizes of darrein presentment are always to be taken before our justices of the Bench and are to be completed there.
 A freeman is not to be amerced for a small offence save in accordance with the manner of the offence, and for a major offence according to its magnitude, saving his sufficiency (salvo contenemento suo), and a merchant likewise, saving his merchandise, and any villain other than one of our own is to be amerced in the same way, saving his necessity (salvo waynagio) should he fall into our mercy, and none of the aforesaid amercements is to be imposed save by the oath of honest and law-worthy men of the neighbourhood. Earls and barons are not to be amerced save by their peers and only in accordance with the manner of their offence.
 No town or free man is to be distrained to make bridges or bank works save for those that ought to do so of old and by right.
 No bank works of any sort are to be kept up save for those that were in defense in the time of King H(enry II) our grandfather and in the same places and on the same terms as was customary in his time.
 No sheriff, constable, coroner or any other of our bailiffs is to hold pleas of our crown.
 If anyone holding a lay fee from us should die, and our sheriff or bailiff shows our letters patent containing our summons for a debt that the dead man owed us, our sheriff or bailiff is permitted to attach and enroll all the goods and chattels of the dead man found in lay fee, to the value of the said debt, by view of law-worthy men, so that nothing is to be removed thence until the debt that remains is paid to us, and the remainder is to be released to the executors to discharge the will of the dead man, and if nothing is owed to us from such a person, all the chattels are to pass to the (use of) the dead man, saving to the dead man’s wife and children their reasonable portion.
 No constable or his bailiff is to take corn or other chattels from anyone who not themselves of a vill where a castle is built, unless the constable or his bailiff immediately offers money in payment of obtains a respite by the wish of the seller. If the person whose corn or chattels are taken is of such a vill, then the constable or his bailiff is to pay the purchase price within forty days.
 No constable is to distrain any knight to give money for castle guard if the knight is willing to do such guard in person or by proxy of any other honest man, should the knight be prevented from doing so by just cause. And if we take or send such a knight into the army, he is to be quit of (castle) guard in accordance with the length of time the we have him in the army for the fee for which he has done service in the army.
 No sheriff or bailiff of ours or of anyone else is to take anyone’s horses or carts to make carriage, unless he renders the payment customarily due, namely for a two-horse cart ten pence per day, and for a three-horse cart fourteen pence per day. No demesne cart belonging to any churchman or knight or any other lady (sic) is to be taken by our bailiffs, nor will we or our bailiffs or anyone else take someone else’s timber for a castle or any other of our business save by the will of he to whom the timber belongs.
 We shall not hold the lands of those convicted of felony save for a year and a day, whereafter such land is to be restored to the lords of the fees.
 All fish weirs (kidelli) on the Thames and the Medway and throughout England are to be entirely dismantled, save on the sea coast.
 The writ called ‘praecipe’ is not to be issued to anyone in respect to any free tenement in such a way that a free man might lose his court.
 There is to be a single measure for wine throughout our realm, and a single measure for ale, and a single measure for Corn, that is to say the London quarter, and a single breadth for dyed cloth, russets, and haberjects, that is to say two yards within the lists. And it shall be the same for weights as for measures.
 Henceforth there is to be nothing given for a writ of inquest from the person seeking an inquest of life or member, but such a writ is to be given freely and is not to be denied.
 If any persons hold from us at fee farm or in socage or burgage, and hold land from another by knight service, we are not, by virtue of such a fee farm or socage or burgage, to have custody of the heir or their land which pertains to another’s fee, nor are we to have custody of such a fee farm or socage or burgage unless this fee farm owes knight service. We are not to have the custody of an heir or of any land which is held from another by knight service on the pretext of some small serjeanty held from us by service of rendering us knives or arrows or suchlike things.
 No bailiff is henceforth to put any man on his open law or on oath simply by virtue of his spoken word, without reliable witnesses being produced for the same.
 No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.
 All merchants, unless they have been previously and publicly forbidden, are to have safe and secure conduct in leaving and coming to England and in staying and going through England both by land and by water to buy and to sell, without any evil exactions, according to the ancient and right customs, save in time of war, and if they should be from a land at war against us and be found in our land at the beginning of the war, they are to be attached without damage to their bodies or goods until it is established by us or our chief justiciar in what way the merchants of our land are treated who at such a time are found in the land that is at war with us, and if our merchants are safe there, the other merchants are to be safe in our land.
 If anyone dies holding of any escheat such as the honour of Wallingford, Boulogne, Nottingham, Lancaster or of other escheats which are in our hands and which are baronies, his heir is not to give any other relief or render any other service to us that would not have been rendered to the baron if the barony were still held by a baron, and we shall hold such things in the same way as the baron held them, nor, on account of such a barony or escheat, are we to have the escheat or custody of any of our men unless the man who held the barony or the escheat held elsewhere from us in chief.
 No free man is henceforth to give or sell any more of his land to anyone, unless the residue of his land is sufficient to render due service to the lord of the fee as pertains to that fee.
 All patrons of abbeys which have charters of the kings of England over advowson or ancient tenure or possession are to have the custody of such abbeys when they fall vacant just as they ought to have and as is declared above.
 No-one is to be taken or imprisoned on the appeal of woman for the death of anyone save for the death of that woman’s husband.
 No county court is to be held save from month to month, and where the greater term used to be held, so will it be in future, nor will any sheriff or his bailiff make his tourn through the hundred save for twice a year and only in the place that is due and customary, namely once after Easter and again after Michaelmas, and the view of frankpledge is to be taken at the Michaelmas term without exception, in such a way that every man is to have his liberties which he had or used to have in the time of King H(enry II) my grandfather or which he has acquired since. The view of frankpledge is to be taken so that our peace be held and so that the tithing is to be held entire as it used to be, and so that the sheriff does not seek exceptions but remains content with that which the sheriff used to have in taking the view in the time of King H(enry) our grandfather.
 Nor is it permitted to anyone to give his land to a religious house in such a way that he receives it back from such a house to hold, nor is it permitted to any religious house to accept the land of anyone in such way that the land is restored to the person from whom it was received to hold. If anyone henceforth gives his land in such a way to any religious house and is convicted of the same, the gift is to be entirely quashed and such land is to revert to the lord of that fee.
 Scutage furthermore is to be taken as it used to be in the time of King H(enry) our grandfather, and all liberties and free customs shall be preserved to archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, Templars, Hospitallers, earls, barons and all others, both ecclesiastical and secular persons, just as they formerly had.
All these aforesaid customs and liberties which we have granted to be held in our realm in so far as pertains to us are to be observed by all of our realm, both clergy and laity, in so far as pertains to them in respect to their own men. For this gift and grant of these liberties and of others contained in our charter over the liberties of the forest, the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, fee holders and all of our realm have given us a fifteenth part of all their movable goods. Moreover we grant to them for us and our heirs that neither we nor our heirs will seek anything by which the liberties contained in this charter might be infringed or damaged, and should anything be obtained from anyone against this it is to count for nothing and to be held as nothing. With these witnesses: the lord S(tephen) archbishop of Canterbury, E(ustace) bishop of London, J(ocelin) bishop of Bath, P(eter) bishop of Winchester, H(ugh) bishop of Lincoln, R(ichard) bishop of Salisbury, W. bishop of Rochester, W(illiam) bishop of Worcester, J(ohn) bishop of Ely, H(ugh) bishop of Hereford, R(anulf) bishop of Chichester, W(illiam) bishop of Exeter, the abbot of (Bury) St Edmunds, the abbot of St Albans, the abbot of Battle, the abbot of St Augustine’s Canterbury, the abbot of Evesham, the abbot of Westminster, the abbot of Peterborough, the abbot of Reading, the abbot of Abingdon, the abbot of Malmesbury, the abbot of Winchcombe, the abbot of Hyde (Winchester), the abbot of Chertsey, the abbot of Sherborne, the abbot of Cerne, the abbot of Abbotsbury, the abbot of Milton (Abbas), the abbot of Selby, the abbot of Cirencester, H(ubert) de Burgh the justiciar, H. earl of Chester and Lincoln, W(illiam) earl of Salisbury, W(illiam) earl Warenne, G. de Clare earl of Gloucester and Hertford, W(illiam) de Ferrers earl of Derby, W(illiam) de Mandeville earl of Essex, H(ugh) Bigod earl of Norfolk, W(illiam) earl Aumale, H(umphrey) earl of Hereford, J(ohn) constable of Chester, R(obert) de Ros, R(obert) fitz Walter, R(obert) de Vieuxpont, W(illiam) Brewer, R(ichard) de Montfiquet, P(eter) fitz Herbert, W(illiam) de Aubigné, G. Gresley, F. de Braose, J(ohn) of Monmouth, J(ohn) fitz Alan, H(ugh) de Mortemer, W(illiam) de Beauchamp, W(illiam) de St John, P(eter) de Maulay, Brian de Lisle, Th(omas) of Moulton, R(ichard) de Argentan, G(eoffrey) de Neville, W(illiam) Mauduit, J(ohn) de Baalon and others. Given at Westminster on the eleventh day of February in the ninth year of our reign.
We, holding these aforesaid gifts and grants to be right and welcome, conceed and confirm them for ourselves and our heirs and by the terms of the present (letters) renew them, wishing and granting for ourselves and our heirs that the aforesaid charter is to be firmly and inviably observed in all and each of its articles in perpetuity, including any articles contained in the same charter which by chance have not to date been observed. In testimony of which we have had made these our letters patent. Witnessed by Edward our son, at Westminster on the twelfth day of October in the twenty-fifth year of our reign. (Chancery warranty by John of) Stowe.
Magna Carta and Its American Legacy Before penning the Declaration of Independence--the first of the American Charters of Freedom--in 1776, the Founding Fathers searched for a historical precedent for asserting their rightful liberties from King George III and the English Parliament. They found it in a gathering that took place 561 years earlier on the plains of Runnymede, not far from where Windsor Castle stands today. There, on June 15, 1215, an assembly of barons confronted a despotic and cash-strapped King John and demanded that traditional rights be recognized, written down, confirmed with the royal seal, and sent to each of the counties to be read to all freemen. The result was Magna Carta--a momentous achievement for the English barons and, nearly six centuries later, an inspiration for angry American colonists.
Magna Carta was the result of the Angevin king's disastrous foreign policy and overzealous financial administration. John had suffered a staggering blow the previous year, having lost an important battle to King Philip II at Bouvines and with it all hope of regaining the French lands he had inherited. When the defeated John returned from the Continent, he attempted to rebuild his coffers by demanding scutage (a fee paid in lieu of military service) from the barons who had not joined his war with Philip. The barons in question, predominantly lords of northern estates, protested, condemning John's policies and insisting on a reconfirmation of Henry I's Coronation Oath (1100), which would, in theory, limit the king's ability to obtain funds. (As even Henry ignored the provisions of this charter, however, a reconfirmation would not necessarily guarantee fewer taxes.) But John refused to withdraw his demands, and by spring most baronial families began to take sides. The rebelling barons soon faltered before John's superior resources, but with the unexpected capture of London, they earned a substantial bargaining chip. John agreed to grant a charter.
The document conceded by John and set with his seal in 1215, however, was not what we know today as Magna Carta but rather a set of baronial stipulations, now lost, known as the "Articles of the barons." After John and his barons agreed on the final provisions and additional wording changes, they issued a formal version on June 19, and it is this document that came to be known as Magna Carta. Of great significance to future generations was a minor wording change, the replacement of the term "any baron" with "any freeman" in stipulating to whom the provisions applied. Over time, it would help justify the application of the Charter's provisions to a greater part of the population. While freemen were a minority in 13th-century England, the term would eventually include all English, just as "We the People" would come to apply to all Americans in this century.
While Magna Carta would one day become a basic document of the British Constitution, democracy and universal protection of ancient liberties were not among the barons' goals. The Charter was a feudal document and meant to protect the rights and property of the few powerful families that topped the rigidly structured feudal system. In fact, the majority of the population, the thousands of unfree laborers, are only mentioned once, in a clause concerning the use of court-set fines to punish minor offenses. Magna Carta's primary purpose was restorative: to force King John to recognize the supremacy of ancient liberties, to limit his ability to raise funds, and to reassert the principle of "due process." Only a final clause, which created an enforcement council of tenants-in-chief and clergymen, would have severely limited the king's power and introduced something new to English law: the principle of "majority rule." But majority rule was an idea whose time had not yet come; in September, at John's urging, Pope Innocent II annulled the "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear." The civil war that followed ended only with John's death in October 1216.
A 1297 version of Magna Carta, presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein, is on display in the West Rotunda Gallery at the National Archives.
To gain support for the new monarch--John's 9-year-old son, Henry III--the young king's regents reissued the charter in 1217. Neither this version nor that issued by Henry when he assumed personal control of the throne in 1225 were exact duplicates of John's charter; both lacked some provisions, including that providing for the enforcement council, found in the original. With the 1225 issuance, however, the evolution of the document ended. While English monarchs, including Henry, confirmed Magna Carta several times after this, each subsequent issue followed the form of this "final" version. With each confirmation, copies of the document were made and sent to the counties so that everyone would know their rights and obligations. Of these original issues of Magna Carta, 17 survive: 4 from the reign of John; 8 from that of Henry III; and 5 from Edward I, including the version now on display at the National Archives.
Although tradition and interpretation would one day make Magna Carta a document of great importance to both England and the American colonies, it originally granted concessions to few but the powerful baronial families. It did include concessions to the Church, merchants, townsmen, and the lower aristocracy for their aid in the rebellion, but the majority of the English population would remain without an active voice in government for another 700 years.
Despite its historical significance, however, Magna Carta may have remained legally inconsequential had it not been resurrected and reinterpreted by Sir Edward Coke in the early 17th century. Coke, Attorney General for Elizabeth, Chief Justice during the reign of James, and a leader in Parliament in opposition to Charles I, used Magna Carta as a weapon against the oppressive tactics of the Stuart kings. Coke argued that even kings must comply to common law. As he proclaimed to Parliament in 1628, "Magna Carta . . . will have no sovereign."
Lord Coke's view of the law was particularly relevant to the American experience for it was during this period that the charters for the colonies were written. Each included the guarantee that those sailing for the New World and their heirs would have "all the rights and immunities of free and natural subjects." As our forefathers developed legal codes for the colonies, many incorporated liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights directly into their own statutes. Although few colonists could afford legal training in England, they remained remarkably familiar with English common law. During one parliamentary debate in the late 18th century, Edmund Burke observed, "In no country, perhaps in the world, is law so general a study." Through Coke, whose four-volume Institutes of the Laws of England was widely read by American law students, young colonists such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison learned of the spirit of the charter and the common law--or at least Coke's interpretation of them. Later, Jefferson would write to Madison of Coke: "a sounder whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called English liberties." It is no wonder then that as the colonists prepared for war they would look to Coke and Magna Carta for justification.
By the 1760s the colonists had come to believe that in America they were creating a place that adopted the best of the English system but adapted it to new circumstances; a place where a person could rise by merit, not birth; a place where men could voice their opinions and actively share in self-government. But these beliefs were soon tested. Following the costly Seven Years' War, Great Britain was burdened with substantial debts and the continuing expense of keeping troops on American soil. Parliament thought the colonies should finance much of their own defense and levied the first direct tax, the Stamp Act, in 1765. As a result, virtually every document--newspapers, licenses, insurance policies, legal writs, even playing cards--would have to carry a stamp showing that required taxes had been paid. The colonists rebelled against such control over their daily affairs. Their own elected legislative bodies had not been asked to consent to the Stamp Act. The colonists argued that without either this local consent or direct representation in Parliament, the act was "taxation without representation." They also objected to the law's provision that those who disobeyed could be tried in admiralty courts without a jury of their peers. Coke's influence on Americans showed clearly when the Massachusetts Assembly reacted by declaring the Stamp Act "against the Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord Coke, null and void."
But regardless of whether the charter forbade taxation without representation or if this was merely implied by the "spirit," the colonists used this "misinterpretation" to condemn the Stamp Act. To defend their objections, they turned to a 1609 or 1610 defense argument used by Coke: superiority of the common law over acts of Parliament. Coke claimed "When an act of parliament is against common right or reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such an act void. Because the Stamp Act seemed to tread on the concept of consensual taxation, the colonists believed it, "according to Lord Coke," invalid.
The colonists were enraged. Benjamin Franklin and others in England eloquently argued the American case, and Parliament quickly rescinded the bill. But the damage was done; the political climate was changing. As John Adams later wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."
Relations between Great Britain and the colonies continued to deteriorate. The more Parliament tried to raise revenue and suppress the growing unrest, the more the colonists demanded the charter rights they had brought with them a century and a half earlier. At the height of the Stamp Act crisis, William Pitt proclaimed in Parliament, "The Americans are the sons not the bastards of England." Parliament and the Crown, however, appeared to believe otherwise. But the Americans would have their rights, and they would fight for them. The seal adopted by Massachusetts on the eve of the Revolution summed up the mood--a militiaman with sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other.
Armed resistance broke out in April 1775. Fifteen months later, the final break was made with the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Although the colonies had finally and irrevocably articulated their goal, Independence did not come swiftly. Not until the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in 1781 was the military struggle won. The constitutional battle, however, was just beginning.
In the war's aftermath, many Americans recognized that the rather loose confederation of states would have to be strengthened if the new nation were to survive. James Madison expressed these concerns in a call for a convention at Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation: "The good people of America are to decide the solemn question, whether they will by wise and magnanimous efforts reap the just fruits of that Independence which they so gloriously acquired . . . or whether by giving way to unmanly jealousies and prejudices, or to partial and transitory interests, they will renounce the auspicious blessings prepared for them by the Revolution." The representatives of the states listened to Madison and drew heavily from his ideas. Instead of revising the Articles, they created a new form of government, embodied in the Constitution of the United States. Authority emanated directly from the people, not from any governmental body. And the Constitution would be "the supreme Law of the Land"--just as Magna Carta had been deemed superior to other statutes.
In 1215, when King John confirmed Magna Carta with his seal, he was acknowledging the now firmly embedded concept that no man--not even the king--is above the law. That was a milestone in constitutional thought for the 13th century and for centuries to come. In 1779 John Adams expressed it this way: "A government of laws, and not of men." Further, the charter established important individual rights that have a direct legacy in the American Bill of Rights. And during the United States' history, these rights have been expanded. The U.S. Constitution is not a static document. Like Magna Carta, it has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the years. This has allowed the Constitution to become the longest-lasting constitution in the world and a model for those penned by other nations. Through judicial review and amendment, it has evolved so that today Americans--regardless of gender, race, or creed--can enjoy the liberties and protection it guarantees. Just as Magna Carta stood as a bulwark against tyranny in England, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights today serve similar roles, protecting the individual freedoms of all Americans against arbitrary and capricious rule.
The history of the human race is replete with stories of personal abuse as well as individual triumph in the face of adversity.
Gripped by the influence of mind, egocentric consciousness has dominated mankind for centuries. Human growth has been slow. The march from ego obsession to universal personal awareness advances and retreats, and then advances again. Two steps forward, then one step backward. However, over the last 50 years there has been an acceleration in growth of human kindness, sensitivity, and greater regard for the well being of all peoples.
The binding influence of mind continues to weigh heavily on the human race. Meditation lessens selfishness, and frees body, mind and spirit.
While walking on the beach and enjoying the sun we can take a stick and drag it through the sand. That creates a line or furrow. The harder we press the deeper the channel we create. That line remains in the sand and will stay there until the wind or surf eventually covers it back up. Now take that same stick and swipe it through water. You will notice that it also creates a line, with emanating ripples, but that will not last long. The impression in the water quickly disappears. Now take that same stick and swipe it through air. That also creates a line, we can feel the resulting wind, but that disappears even faster.
As consciousness expands the imprint of experience on the mind becomes less and less. The winds of time and change and their resulting vicissitudes fall more softly on our psyche. Less indelible become their influence. Just as dragging a stick in the sand makes a deep furrow not easily covered up, swiping the stick through the air makes much less of an impression. So to, as our individual consciousness grows the impact of experience softens.
As we continue our meditation practice individual consciousness grows along with strength and stability. Mediation helps us to more easily forgive and heal.
One of the first tipping points in favor of the recognition of human rights took place on English soil in the year 1215. The rule of aristocracy was set aside when King John of England signed (rather reluctantly) a document later known as “The Magna Carta.” This granted rights to everyone, hitherto only afforded to the ruling class and wealthy Barons of the land.
And it’s not that this was the first document ever to formalize human rights. Heaven knows, many virtuous and well wishing people, along with spiritual leaders through the millennia, have tried. But the acceptance of this document by the prevailing human race indicates that the average consciousness of the mass of people living at that time – had finally risen to the level of valuing every human life.
A revised and expanded 1297 version of this document, called the “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, and of the Liberties of the Forest,” still remain on the statute books of England and Wales.
Here are some of the more relevant tenants of the Magna Carta:
1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English Church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever.
We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever.
30. No sheriff or bailiff of ours, or other person, shall take the horses or carts of any freeman for transport duty, against the will of the said freeman.
31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take, for our castles or for any other work of ours, wood which is not ours, against the will of the owner of that wood.
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or diseased or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
45. We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.
As human consciousness grows, the higher values of life will be reflected by society and eventually find their way into the laws and constitutions of the governments of the world.
Here are some examples of what is currently of the statute books of several countries …
The Constitution of Argentina (1994):
14th Article: All inhabitants of the Nation enjoy the following rights under the laws that regulate their exercise, namely: to work and perform all industries tender, to navigate and trade; to petition the authorities, to enter, remain in, travel in and out of Argentine territory, to publish their ideas through the press without prior censorship to use and dispose of property, of associate for useful purposes, to profess freely their religion; of ensenhar and learn.
18th Article: No inhabitant of the Nation may be punished without previous trial based on the fact of prior law process, nor tried by special commissions, or removed from the judges appointed by law before the act for the cause. No one can be compelled to testify against himself, nor arrested except by written order of authority competently. The defense at trial of the person and of rights. The home is inviolable and also the correspondence and private papers and a law determine when and how evidence may proceed with their search and occupation. Are abolished for always the death penalty for political causes, any kind of torture and beating.
Chapter III, Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual:
Whereas every person in The Bahamas is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, has the right, whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following, namely-
a) life, liberty, security of the person and the protection of the law ; b) freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association ; and c) protection for the privacy of his home and other property and from deprivation of property without compensation,
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Constitution Act, 1982:
Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other means of communication. (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.
The Federal Republic of Germany:
Article 1 (Protection of human dignity): (1) The dignity of man inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world. (3) The following basic rights bind the legislature, the executive and the judiciary as directly enforceable law.
Article 2 (Rights of liberty). (1) Everyone has the right to the free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral code. (2) Everyone has the right to life and to inviolability of his person. The freedom of the individual is inviolable. These rights may only be encroached upon pursuant to a law.
Article 3 (Equality before the law). (1) All persons are equal before the law. (2) Men and women have equal rights. (3) No one may be prejudiced or favored because of his sex, his parentage, his race, his language, his homeland and origin, his faith or his religious or political opinions.
Article 4 (Freedom of faith, of conscience and of creed). (1) Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom of creed religious or ideological, are inviolable. (2) The undisturbed practice of religion is guaranteed. (3) No one may be compelled against his conscience to render war service as an armed combatant. Details will be regulated by a Federal law.
Article 5 (Freedom of expression). (1) Everyone has the right freely to express and to disseminate his opinion by speech, writing and pictures and freely to inform himself from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by radio and motion pictures are guaranteed. There shall be no censorship. (2) These rights are limited by the provisions of the general laws, the provisions of law for the protection of youth and by the right to inviolability of personal honor. (3) Art and science, research and teaching are free. Freedom of teaching does not absolve from loyalty to the constitution.
The Constitution of the Republic of Hungary:
Chapter I, Article 8:
The Republic of Hungary recognizes the inviolable and inalienable rights of persons. Ensuring respect and protection for these rights is a primary obligation of the State.
The Constitution of India, on Fundamental Rights:
Article 14: Equality before law:
The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
Article 15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth:
(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to- (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing Ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. (4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
Article 17: Abolition of Untouchability:
“Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability rising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Article 19: Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.:
1) All citizens shall have the right- a) to freedom of speech and expression; (b) to assemble peaceably and without arms; (c) to form associations or unions; (d) to move freely throughout the territory of India; (e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; (g) to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.
Article 25: Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion:
(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.
Bill of Rights
It’s not a matter of writing documents that delineate human rights. It’s a matter of recognizing the sanctity of human rights, and flowing through by creating a safe-space for their exercise.
When the collective consciousness of a people rise to the value of honoring life, the idea of human rights takes hold and resonates in the very fabric of that society.
We see this time and time again, where countries are aided in transitions to democracy, only to once again fall back to old ways and habits (self centeredness). The quest does not take root and is not sustained because the general populace still remains deeply ensnared in the dream of samsara.
Sometimes bad situations in a country are blamed on their leadership. We certainly hope that the leaders representing all nations are chosen from the best that their society can offer. But as a representative of their general population and human stock, they will carry the fears and dreams of those in their respective societies. That’s why deposing one leader and installing another does not necessarily lead to better times.
A countries’ leader is a mirror of the consciousness of their people. Freedom for all life
Assure human rights and their proper governance through the development of human consciousness.
Day by day, person by person, close the eyes and meditate.
There is a growing realization that we get what we deserve (cause and affect). So first deserve, then desire.
Abandon all melancholy and malaise from the human psyche, by opening your mind to the infinite blissful value of pure consciousness. Deep within, at the seat of thought, resides the jewel of eternal existence. It’s already there.
As a hummingbird sipping nectar flies continuously from blossom to blossom, so does the mind wander in its endless search for peace. Continue your meditation practice every day, so that your mind settles to find its true essence.
That wonderful eternal value of life is the home of all rights, human and divine.
Interpretations of the Magna Carta Throughout British and American HistoryThe Magna Carta is a legal instrument upon which many constitutional and charter rights of different English speaking countries are based that followed it in history. In order to understand our charter and constitutional rights today, we need to understand what this charter was and how it was interpreted throughout history to our time today in the English speaking and British derived industrial world. The Words Magna Carta is Latin for Great Charter (of Freedoms). It was originally drafted, requiring King John of England in 1215 CE to proclaim certain rights and legal procedure to barons and freemen. It was drafted to respect legal rights such as Habeas Corpus (appeal against unlawful imprisonment) and the right to due process in clause 29. In addition, it served to protect the king's subjects whether bond or free. Much of what it contains comes from a document drafted in 1100 drafted under King Henry I and concerning the treatment of church officials and nobles. It went through revisions from 1215 to 1297. It remained in effect until 1969 when only clauses 1, 9 and 29 were left.
Magna Carter is argued to one of the most significant legal documents ever drafted in the last millennium. Among the charters it influenced are the United States Constitution and the Canadian Charter or Rights. The British Civil War was fought over issues contained in it. Many clauses were renewed, updated and translated in the middle ages and into the 18th century. During the 2nd half of the 19th century, most of the clauses therein had been repealed. From the beginning to the end, there has been a struggle to enforce it, bury it or to interpret it to the favour of the monarch or the favour of the subjects. As the British empire changed from one dominated by the Monarchy to one dominated by the Parliament, the bourgeoisie and the bankers, much of the clauses that applied under the feudal order were dropped as they didn't apply to an industrial imperialist power. What remains is a stripped down version, much of which is reflected in other national constitutions and charters.
The Magna Carta was written up by the barons and forced upon the king in an attempt to limit his powers and protect their own privileges. It was an evolution of the 1100 version of the Charter of Liberties in which king Henry the 1st voluntarily subjugated his own powers under the law. This grew out of the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE, 34 years earlier and the growing influence of the king up to 1199 CE. A series of failures at home and abroad, combined with perceived abuses of power up to the days of King John of England led to a revolt by the barons which sought to restrain the king. One of the major causes of this was his failures in his actions in France in order to acquire the throne in succession to King Richard.
During King John's reign, there was a lot of controversy over the election of the new and succeeding Archbishop of Canterbury. A conflict arose when monks appointed one of their own to the succession where the king was not included in the choice of appointment. King John appointed a choice of his own. Both the king and the monks had their own choices as to who was to be the successor and Pope Innocent III became involved to resolve the dispute by declaring both choices invalid and appointing his own choice in the matter, Stephen Langton as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Further, the Pope excommunicated King John and encouraged Phillip to invade England in 1212. In order to gain the favor of the Pope, the king gave in and turned over lands in England and Ireland to the Pope, thus surrendering autonomy to a foreign power. This served to enrage the barons, who then sought to limit his powers of fiat. Thus the Magna Carta was drafted and enforced in response.
As a result of the wars, especially in Normandy, King John decided to raise more money through taxes, to the huge sum of 70 thousand pounds for the period. He also developed the idea that is the basis of income tax that was to become so prevalent later. All of this raised rebellion among the subjects in addition to his other excesses. By 1215, the king was forced to read, agree to and sign the Magna Carta. The most significant clause in the Magna Carta for King John at the time was clause 61, known as the security clause. This was the longest part of the Magna Carta. A committee of 25 barons could at any time meet and override the will of the king even by force, seizing his castles and possessions. This was the first time such a practice was forced upon a monarch. King John and his successors were also forced to take an oath of loyalty to the committee. Kings thereafter sought to sidestep and hide the Magna Carta.
In 1225 feudal rights were still in place, but were removed in the post feudal world as they no longer applied. The Magna Carta provided for anti-corruption and the return of lands and property to former owners and bound the king to these agreements. Magna Carta was the first entry on the statute books. After 1472 during the Tudor reign, it was not mentioned for a period of almost a hundred years. Most people were completely ignorant about the document. The few who did know about it, spoke of a good king (John) being forced by an unstable pope and rebellious barons to grant them special liberties and that it was a product of a wrong headed rebellion against the true authority of the king. The original Magna Carta was seen as an ancient document with shadowy origins and as having no bearing on the Tudor world. The Charter in the statute books was thought to have arisen from the reign of Henry III who first used the Charter of Rights. The church used it to protect itself from the attacks of Henry the VIII. King Henry the VIII had trouble getting a male heir to the throne and sought to gain divorces which the church was against. By using pressure he was either able to divorce and remarry. When this was no longer possible, he resorted to more sinister means in his attempt to gain a male heir. Ultimately he failed and the throne went to a female heir. Eventually in the fights against the Tudors, the Magna Carta was used to set up the first Parliament in order to assist in enforcing the rights of common law.
In Elizabethan times, England was becoming a powerful force in European affairs, which was to ultimately see British imperialism dominate much of the civilized world. In the academic sphere of the time, earnest and futile attempts were made to prove that Parliament had Roman origins and thus could be justified. The events at Runnymede in 1215 were allegedly re-discovered, allowing a possibility to "prove" the great antiquity of Parliament. The Magna Carta became synonymous with the idea of an ancient house with origins in the Roman government. The Magna Carta was interpreted as an attempt to return to a pre-Norman state of affairs. In contradistinction, the Tudors saw the Charter as proof that their state of governance had existed since time immemorial and the Normans had been a brief break from this "liberty and democracy". This claim is disputed in certain circles but explains how Magna Carta came to be regarded as such an important document.
In reality and in practice, the Magna Carta did not limit the power of the kings of the medieval period. By the time of the English Civil War, it became an important symbol for those who wished to limit the power of the king through binding it to the law.
The Petition of Right in 1628 was meant as a reaffirmation of the charter but it was defeated by the Attorney General, who stated that the petition claimed it was a mere codification of existing law stemming from the Magna Carta. He claimed there was no precedent shown as to these laws existing in such as a way as they bound the present king. There was a definite feeling that the king could not be bound by law and therefore Clause 39 and all others did not apply to him contrary to what the subjects thought. The charter was seen as important as a statement as to the antiquity of Parliament and that it was pre-Norman, not because it was the catalyst to the genesis of Parliament. The Charter was seen in part as entrenched law by Coke's opinion and no one would deny it. However it was not seen as binding on the king. Suggestions such as these were impermissible until the Stuart period.
By the time of the Stuart dynasty, the Magna Carta had arisen in opinion to almost mythological proportions by hose who admired it. It was regarded as an artefact of a gold age where liberties came from the pre-Norman era. It was not a proof of existing liberty so much as what came before and was lost and hoped to be regained. By the mid 1600's, John Coke was attempting to use it once more to restrain the Crown and its officers and appointees. In response, Queen Elizabeth I urged John Coke not to go ahead with his plans and Charles I ordered that Coke's book on the Magna Carta not be published. Eventually, after Coke's death, parliament ordered his house and affects searched and published the manuscript of the book in 1642.
From here to the present, the power of Parliament increased to the point where Parliament could raise taxes and determine how the money so raised could spent. From this point on, the expansion of the British Empire allowed traders to become rich and powerful enough, many who became involved with banking, money lending and eventually exceeding the power of the Monarchy. This was the rising bourgeoisie. This class eventually succeeded to power in France during the French Revolution, The American Revolution and in Britain through clever money manipulation that brought the monarchy under their control. The Magna Carta was one of the tools used to this end. The Monarchy evolved into a proxy power with no real authority except under control of Parliament and Parliament under the rule of oligarchs like Rothschild. This state of affairs has existed since the turn into the 19th century, at which time; Britain was the major power in the world.
For modern times, the most enduring legacy of Magna Carta is considered the right of habeas corpus. This right stems from what are now known as clauses 36, 38, 39, and 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta. Clause 29 guarantees a right to due process, which has become important in the US and Canada.
As the origins of the United States and Canada partly derive from Great Britain, it is understandable that sections of the Magna Carta found its way into the charters and constitutions of these countries. Even in the case of communism, the idea of land reforms and redistribution had part of its inspiration from here.
With the Canadian Charter of Rights, Section 9: describes the freedom from arbitrary detainment or imprisonment. Section 10 describes the right to legal counsel and the guarantee of habeas corpus. Habeas Corpus is the appeal against unlawful imprisonment and the right to due process detailed in clause 29 of the Magna Carta. Though the US has influences from the Spanish and French as well, the predominant influence at this point is from the British source.
The due process clause in the US constitution derives directly from the 1215 version of the Magna Carta. This was expanded to include the right to bear arms, to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment; as also in Canada and the requirement of jury trials of peers.
The ideas and principles contained in both the US Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights originate from the Magna Carta. One of the most important considerations is the protection against arrest and confinement without cause. Yet under the Homeland Security Act and the Patriot Act we find ourselves in a situation that can find peoples' rights violated with unreasonable search and seizure, arrest without warrant and internment without charge indefinitely, some of the very things the Magna Carta sought to prevent. Today, these new changes would be considered violations with the Magna Carta and now the US Constitution and Canadian Charter of Rights. In October of 2006, George Bush with the backing of Congress stuck down Habeas Corpus, thus enshrining in law the inability of those arrested and detained to even have a hearing. This act means that the ordinary citizen no longer has recourse to being heard or having legal representation when arrested without charge and detained indefinitely. This opens the doors for all kinds of abuse and this is just what we are witnessing. The land of the brave and free is now that in name only, supporting repression and torture around the world. Thus having something written on paper is no guaranteeing that such protection in reality. History has seen a constant struggle between two sides; classes that both seek to justify their side using the same charters. Karl Marx summed up the situation when he said that the extent of all previous history has hitherto been a history of class struggle.
Magna Charta On June 15, 1215, King John (1199–1216) was surrounded on the battlefield at Runnymede by a cordon of England's most powerful barons, who demanded royal recognition for certain liberties and legal procedures they enumerated in a written document known today as the Magna Charta. Contained in the Magna Charta's 63 chapters are the seeds of trial by jury, due process, Habeas Corpus, and equality under the law. The Magna Charta was reissued three times during the reign of Henry III (1216–72) with some minor alteration, and confirmed by the Crown more than 30 times thereafter.
Sometimes called the Great Charter, the Magna Charta is widely considered to be the foundation of the English and U.S. constitutional systems, representing the first time the often tyrannical power of the monarchy was restrained by law and popular resistance. The Magna Charta was cited by Sir Edward Coke, esteemed English jurist and member of the House of Commons, in opposition to the monarchy's assertion of absolute power in the seventeenth century. During the American Revolution, colonists relied on the Magna Charta when they convened the First Continental Congress to restore the rights lost under the coercive legislation of Parliament.
Almost from its inception, the Great Charter has been imbued with two separate meanings, one literal and the other symbolic. The literal meaning is reflected by the original understanding of the Magna Charta in the thirteenth century; the symbolic meaning was developed by subsequent generations, which interpreted its provisions in light of a changing political landscape. The literal meaning was associated with the concrete rights enforced by the barons against the monarchy; the symbolic meaning became associated with the Rule of Law, an impartial system of justice, and government by the consent of the people and their representatives. To understand the symbolic importance attached to the Magna Charta, one must view the literal meaning in its original context.
The Magna Charta is the product of three competing legal jurisdictions: royal, ecclesiastical, and baronial. The royal system of justice maintained jurisdiction over all matters that affected the monarch's peace, directly or indirectly. Royal courts heard disputes at a central location in Westminster, and royal itinerant judges traveled locally to dispense the monarch's justice to communities across England.
The Catholic church, with the pope presiding as the spiritual head in Rome, ran the ecclesiastical courts. These courts maintained jurisdiction over the discipline of the church's clergy, religious offenses such as heresy, and most moral, marital, and testamentary matters
Baronial courts were governed by barons, powerful men who were given titles of dignity by the Crown and who held large parcels of land, known as manors, from the monarch. Each baron, as lord of his manor, was invested with the authority to hear disputes involving his tenants, men and women who agreed to work the land in exchange for shelter and security.
John alienated both the ecclesiastical and baronial jurisdictions during his reign as king, converting them into adversaries. The first ten years of John's reign were consumed by controversy with the church. John considered the pope to be subordinate to the Crown and treated the archbishop as a mere civil servant. The church, on the other hand, considered itself to be a separate and independent sovereign that had shared power with the Crown since the time of Henry I (1100–1135). Henry I and the church had agreed that the nomination of bishops in England would tacitly remain with the king. But the pope retained power to confirm bishops by conferring upon them the honorary symbols of their title, the spiritual staff and ring.
The agreement between Henry I and the church provided no resolution for the controversy between King John and Pope Innocent III at the outset of the thirteenth century. The controversy began when Innocent III rejected John's candidate for archbishop of Canterbury and substituted his own choice, Stephen Langton, a man of superior "moral and intellectual greatness" (Trevelyan 1982, 146). John responded by confiscating the church's property in England. The papacy, whose power had grown as a result of its compromise with Henry I, subsequently undertook a series of steps to damage the Crown's prestige and credibility.
The pope excommunicated King John, suspended religious sacraments in England, and declared the English empire a forfeit from God. Facing growing pressure from the church and increasing unpopularity among Catholics within his own country, John surrendered England to the papacy, receiving it back as a fief, which meant the Crown was now subordinate to Rome and was required to pay homage to the pope. These royal concessions satisfied the pope and made him a cautious ally of the Crown. Archbishop Langton was determined to achieve similar concessions for the barons.
The grievances voiced by the barons were quite different from those voiced by the church. The barons' dissatisfaction stemmed from the manner in which the royal system of justice had been abused by King John. Prior to the reign of henry ii (1154–89), English Law had comprised a loose collection of customs and traditions followed by a variety of ethnic groups scattered across the realm. Henry II created a centralized system of justice that emanated from London, which the monarch's officials administered in a uniform manner to all English people in common. Although this "common law" established a body of rights and procedures by which all litigants appearing before the ruler's courts would theoretically be treated the same, it also vested an enormous amount of power in the Crown. The tension separating Arbitrary royal power from the principle of equality under the law erupted during the struggle between King John and his baronial magnates.
King John regularly sold legal rights and privileges to the highest bidder, rewarded favorites, punished enemies, and otherwise administered justice in an erratic and unfair fashion. For a dispute to be heard by the royal courts, parties were required to pay the monarch fees, which varied from case to case depending on the circumstances. If the Crown was in need of emergency revenue—and it seemingly always was during the reign of King John—these litigation fees were increased commensurate with the urgency of a particular financial crisis. Litigants in good graces with the monarch typically paid lower court fees than litigants in disfavor. A defendant who requested the postponement or suspension of a legal matter was required to pay a greater fee than the plaintiff was charged.
Such litigation fees, which were paid in all legal matters—civil, criminal, matrimonial, and probate—simply enabled parties to assert their claims and defenses before the royal court. They did not guarantee a particular outcome, although the amount paid may have influenced the outcome, and they bore no relationship to the penalty or fine imposed on the losing party. Consequently, defendants who paid an exorbitant fee just to present an unsuccessful defense often faced fines of an equally outrageous amount. Defendants who suffered incarceration for a wrongdoing were usually forced to purchase their freedom from the monarch.
The manner in which the ruler enforced and collected royal debts was no less capricious. Litigants who could not afford to pay the legal fees set by the Crown frequently borrowed money from the ruler in order to pursue a particular right or remedy. The terms of such loan agreements were typically draconian. As collateral for these loans, John required the debtors to pledge their estates, Personal Property, and sometimes family members. In one case, a debtor was forced to pledge his castle and four sons as collateral. On other occasions, friends and family members of the debtor were held hostage by the king until the loan was repaid in full.
In some instances, the king simply forgave a loan because the debtor was a personal friend, had promised political favors, or had provided an invaluable service. In most instances, the invaluable service was military duty. During the thirteenth century, each baron was required to serve as a soldier in the monarch's army, and provide the Crown with a certain number of knights for military service. A fine could be paid in lieu of the baron's military service, and a tax, known as scutage, was then paid in lieu of the knights' service. When King John launched a military campaign, he dramatically increased the fines and taxes for nonservice, and used these monies to pay mercenaries to fight his battles.
Although King John dreamed of building an English empire through military conquest on the European continent, he was an utter failure on the battlefield. With each military loss, the miscellaneous economic demands made by the Crown seemed less justified and more absurd. It is not surprising, then, that the barons renounced loyalty to the king, plotted his assassination, and ultimately compelled his capitulation to the Magna Charta.
The grievances King John promised to redress in the Magna Charta represent both the substance of the Great Charter's original meaning and its later symbolic import. The document's immediate purpose was to appease the baronial leadership. In this vein, it provided that justice would not be sold, denied, or delayed (ch. 40), and ensured that certain rights and procedures would be "granted freely" without risk of "life or limb" (ch. 36). It guaranteed the safe return of hostages, lands, castles, and family members that had been held as security by the Crown for military service and loan agreements. The Magna Charta mandated the investigation and Abolition of any "ill customs" established by King John (ch. 48), and required that no "justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs" be appointed unless they "know the law of the land, and are willing to keep it" (ch. 45).
The phrase "law of the land" is interspersed throughout the Magna Charta, and is emblematic of other abstract legal concepts contained in the Great Charter that outlasted the exigencies of 1215. Nowhere in the Great Charter is "law of the land" defined, but a number of sections offer an early glimpse of certain constitutional liberties in embryonic form.
For example, the American colonies equated "law of the land" with "due process of law," a legal principle that has been the cornerstone of procedural fairness in U.S. civil and criminal trials since the late 1700s. The due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments has been relied on by the U.S. Supreme Court as a source for substantive rights as well, including the right to privacy.
Chapter 39 of the Magna Charta linked the law-of-the-land principle with another important protection. It provided, "No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled or injured in any way, nor will we enter on him or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." In 1215, a person obtained "lawful judgment of his peers" through a communal inquest in which 12 knights or landowners familiar with the subject matter of the dispute took an oath, and swore to testify truthfully based on their own knowledge or on knowledge gained from an Eyewitness or other credible source.
This primitive form of fact-finding replaced even cruder methods—such as trial by battle, where the disputants fought savagely until one party begged for mercy or died, and the victorious party was presumed to have God and Right on his side. The process of one's peers in the community rendering judgment also presaged the modern trial by jury recognized by the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which similarly entitles a defendant to be tried by a body of jurors that is a "truly representative" cross section of the community (Glasser v. United States, 315 U.S. 60, 62 S. Ct. 457, 86 L. Ed. 680 ).
The U.S. Supreme Court has also traced the origins of modern habeas corpus law to chapter 39 of the Magna Charta (Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 106 S. Ct. 2639, 91 L. Ed. 2d 397 ). Habeas corpus is a procedure that authorizes a court to determine the legality under which a person is jailed, imprisoned, or otherwise detained by the government. If the court finds that the person was deprived of liberty through "due process of law," continued detention is permissible until trial, where guilt and innocence are placed in issue. Similarly, the Magna Charta validated the continued imprisonment of persons who had been originally incarcerated by the "law of the land."
In Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 111 S. Ct. 2680, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836 (1991), the Supreme Court also pointed to the Magna Charta as an early source of its Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis. Chapter 20 of the Great Charter prohibited the monarch from imposing a fine "unless according to the measure of the offense." It further provided that "for a great offense [a free man] shall be [punished] according to the greatness of the offense." Under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has echoed this principle by prohibiting state and federal governments from imposing fines and other forms of punishment that are disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense for which the defendant was convicted.
The contemporary significance of the Magna Charta is not confined to the areas of civil and Criminal Procedure. The Great Charter prohibited the government from assessing any military tax such as scutage "except by the common counsel of [the] realm" (ch. 12). The common counsel comprised persons from various classes of English society, including bishops, abbots, earls, and barons. The common counsel was a forerunner to Parliament and Congress as a representative body limiting the power of the government to pass legislation, particularly tax legislation, without popular consent.
The common counsel also proclaimed what would become a battle cry of the American colonists: No Taxation without Representation. Indeed, some colonists decried the Stamp Act, a statute passed by Parliament that taxed everything from newspapers to playing cards, as an illegal attempt to raise revenue in violation of the Magna Charta. Other colonists cited "the assembly of barons at Runnymede, when Magna Carta was signed" as precedent for the Continental Congress (Bailyn 1992, 173 n. 13).
The achievement of the Magna Charta, then, is found not only in the original meaning understood by Englanders of the thirteenth century, but also in the subsequent application of the document's principles. The Magna Charta began as a peace treaty between the baronial class and the king, but later symbolized a written contract between the governed and the government, a contract that included the right of rebellion when the government grew despotic or ruled without popular consent.
The Magna Charta also came to represent the notion of government bound by the law, sometimes referred to as the rule of law. The distinction between government according to law and government according to the will of the sovereign has been drawn by legal and political philosophers for thousands of years. This distinction was also made during the reign of King John. For example, Peter Fitz Herbert, an important landowner, complained that his father had been "disseised" of land "by the will of the king" despite evidence that the land belonged to his family as a matter of "right."
In another case, jurors returned a verdict against the Crown because the king had acted "by his will and without judgment" (Holt 1965, 91). For subsequent generations, in both England and the United States, the Magna Charta signified the contrast between tyrannical government unfettered by anything but the personal whims of its political leadership, and representative government limited by the letter and spirit of the law. The Magna Charta implied that no government official, not even an autocratic monarch asserting absolute power, is above the law.
Finally, the Magna Charta has come to symbolize equality under the law. Although the baronial leadership of 1215 represented a privileged class of male landowners, many provisions of the Magna Charta safeguarded the interests of women as well. For example, the Magna Charta granted women the right to refuse marriage and the option to remarry. It also protected a widow's Dower interest in one-third of her husband's property.
Some provisions of the Magna Charta applied more broadly to all "free" individuals (ch. 39), whereas other provisions seemingly applied to every person in the realm, free or not. Chapter 16, for example, stated that "no one" shall be compelled to perform service for a knight's fee, and chapter 42 guaranteed a safe return to "anyone" who left the realm.
The most telling provision in this regard was chapter 40, which provided that "justice" will be sold to "no one." This provision embodies more than the idea that justice is cheapened when bought and sold. It also underscores the principle that all persons, rich and poor, must be treated the same under the law. An extension of this principle was captured by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, invalidates laws that discriminate on the basis of, among other things, race, gender, national origin, and Illegitimacy.
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