Magna Carta: A Charter for the Ages

(The following is a feature story written by Nathan Dorn, curator of rare books in the Law Library of Congress, for the November/December 2014 issue of the LCM. The issue can be read in its entirety here.)

“The Excellent Priviledge of Liberty and Property: Being a Reprint and Facsimile of the First American Edition of Magna Charta,” 1687, Philadelphia, 1897. Law Library of Congress.

After 800 years, the granting of Magna Carta remains a milestone of human history. But why does a feudal charter issued by a medieval king in a distant country still mean so much to us today?

Magna Carta is one of the great symbols of individual liberty and the rule of law. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Magna Carta is regarded as a charter of American liberty. Its reputation, however, sometimes conceals its complex history and actual significance.

Magna Carta was originally created as a peace treaty. King John of England in early 1215 faced rebellion in his kingdom from disenchanted barons threatening civil war. When the barons seized the tactical advantage, John had no choice but to accept their demands for reform. The two sides met at Runnymede, a meadow by the Thames River west of London, to discuss terms of agreement. After days of negotiations, on June 15, 1215, John placed his seal on a list of guarantees he promised to uphold in perpetuity.

The document that emerged from John’s conflict with the barons wasn’t an obvious candidate for the reputation it eventually earned. It contains few statements of high principle. Instead, it is a list of practical reforms tailored to the barons’ specific grievances. Many relate to customs and institutions that have not existed for centuries.

Magna Carta doesn’t guarantee individual liberties. Where it promises to safeguard “liberties,” the charter is referring to special immunities the wealthy and powerful could inherit or purchase from the king. The barons mainly hoped to obtain the king’s guarantee to protect their narrow private interests.

Fortunately, that isn’t all they sought. A principal grievance against John was that he disregarded custom-he governed the kingdom in a lawless and erratic way. This disregard was particularly felt in John’s administration of the courts of law. The barons’ charge wasn’t unfair, but there was more to the story. The Plantagenet kings–including John, but especially his father, Henry II– were intimately involved in the development of England’s legal system. Henry II expanded the quality and availability of courts throughout the country, promoting the development of standards for procedure. John carried on this project as well.

This effort had unexpected results for the kings. Both Henry II and John excelled at using the courts and their new instruments of governance to reward friends and punish enemies. But the expanding legal culture created new expectations among the baronage, which now counted on the customs and procedures of the courts to protect their interests.

These expectations, in turn, gave rise to demands for custom as a matter of right–a scenario that could no longer abide the kings’ freewheeling ruling style. This conflict came to a head during John’s reign.

The legacy of Magna Carta continued with the “Acts passed at a Congress of the United States of America,” New York, 1789. Law Library of Congress.

To be sure, John was unpopular for many reasons. To fight foreign wars, he taxed the wealthy at unprecedented levels–and then lost the wars for which he had risked alienating his barons. He was excommunicated by the Church, causing all of England to be placed under interdiction, as a result of an unnecessary argument with Pope Innocent III. John’s last defeat, at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214, seems to have triggered the rebellion of 1215.

All these factors were important, but it was John’s perceived lawlessness the barons sought above all to address in Magna Carta.

Magna Carta represented, therefore, an argument in favor of rule of law. This can be seen concretely in provisions relating to the operation of the courts. For example, Magna Carta requires that the crown supply neutral witnesses against the accused, that judges be knowledgeable in the law and that fines be assessed according to the severity of the infraction. Justice, it famously guaranteed, should not be sold, delayed or denied.

The most important of Magna Carta’s guarantees has become virtual scripture for the rule of law. It reads: “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned 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.” That single sentence provided protection from prejudgment imprisonment, torture, execution and confiscation of property; it guaranteed a rudimentary form of jury trial and protection from arbitrary court proceedings.

Over time, Magna Carta’s association with the supremacy of law over king grew stronger. Magna Carta was reissued in abridged form many times by John’s successors and later by Parliament.

Beyond its specific guarantees, the charter’s confirmation came to represent a pledge that the king would uphold the rule of law. A series of medieval statutes expanded and amplified some of its core guarantees, so that they applied to all Englishmen and made any law or act of the sovereign that violated the charter’s terms null and void.

In the early 17th century, English jurists, especially Sir Edward Coke, took renewed interest in Magna Carta. Coke, who had been Queen Elizabeth I’s attorney general and King James I’s Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, claimed that Magna Carta placed legal restraints on the king’s prerogative, safeguarding individual liberties from infringement by the monarch. In particular, he interpreted Magna Carta as the legal basis of the writ of habeas corpus, that is, the privilege to petition for a judicial review of the reasons for one’s detention. He saw the charter’s requirement that one may only be imprisoned according to the “law of the land” as a kind of due process protection against being held without charges.

Many ideas that were common to the founders of the American republic–limited government, the consent of the governed, constitutionally guaranteed liberties and judicial review–all owed a debt to the tradition surrounding Magna Carta. Elements of Magna Carta were included in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, notably the Seventh Amendment right to a trial by jury, Fourth Amendment protections from unlawful search and seizure and the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Coke may have read into Magna Carta rights not present in the text, but his understanding of the text inspired American law and colonial institutions and ultimately played a major part in the political thought that led to American independence.

The Library of Congress exhibition, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” is open through Jan. 19, 2015. 

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