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Exploring the Legacy of Magna Carta with Students through Historic Images

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The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, 1215. Courtesy of Lincoln Cathedral
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, 1215. Courtesy of Lincoln Cathedral

In the November/December 2014 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article focused on the influence of Magna Carta on early American political culture. We focused on two portraits of the lawyer and writer John Dickinson that reflect this influence.

(The Library of Congress is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the creation of Magna Carta with an exhibition, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.”)

The medieval English charter known as Magna Carta was intended as a local political document, created to make peace between England’s King John and his barons in the early thirteenth century. However, it carried within it powerful ideas about the limits of government and the importance of individual liberty, and its influence has spread across the centuries and around the globe.

Portrait of John Dickinson, 1772
Portrait of John Dickinson, 1772

These ideas found particularly fertile ground in Britain’s North American colonies. During the controversy over the Stamp Act of 1765, one writer observed that “the prevailing reason at this time is, that the act of parliament is against Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen.”

In 1772, a popular almanac included a portrait of John Dickinson, whose writings defending colonists’ liberty brought him renown as the “penman of the Revolution.” The portrait is filled with details that not only allowed readers of the time to identify the subject of the portrait, but that also allow students today to speculate about the image’s creator, the context in which the image was made and published, and the connection that creator wanted to make between John Dickinson and Magna Carta.

If you’ve used these sources or others like them to discuss the influence older documents had on the people and documents of the American revolution, please let us know in the comments. What connections did your students discover?


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