[It is] the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
Lord Denning, British Jurist
On June 15, 1215, in the now famous meadow at Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, King John signed the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. This moment was a watershed in history. The king’s signature meant that he accepted rule of law, the principle that the law takes precedence over the will of any ruler or government. In other words, King John could “no longer make it up as he went along.” Now, there existed a written law that bound the sovereign as well as the poorest citizen. The English had long recognized the rights of the individual, but the Magna Carta marks the transition from the age of traditional rights to written documentation to protect those rights.
The Magna Carta, named “great” due to its volume more than magnitude, contains long passages concerning property. This is significant, because, as Daniel Hannan writes in The Wall Street Journal (May 30, 2015), the “Magna Carta conceived freedom and property as two expressions of the same principle. The whole document can be read as a lengthy promise that the goods of a free citizen will not be arbitrarily confiscated by someone higher up the social scale. Even the clauses that seem most remote from modern experience generally turn out, in reality, to be about security of ownership.”
The Great Charter inextricably unites the concepts of liberty and property: our right to property secures our liberty.
The legal protections secured by the Magna Carta were central to the establishment of the United States. The Founding Fathers took the ideas conceived in the Magna Carta and carried them a step further, recognizing them not only as a statement of the fundamental rights of person and property, but considered this document to guarantee those rights. From this foundation of law was the birth of The War of Independence and eventually The United States of America.
When the Founding Fathers issued the Declaration of Independence, they were not rebelling against the English crown as much as they were claiming their rights as Englishmen. In issuing taxes on the colonies without parliamentary representation, King George III had violated rights explicity enumerated in the Magna Carta. As Hannan writes, “It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist.”
This year, 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the signing. As we commemorate this significant anniversary we recognize that the rights and liberties first secured in the Magna Carta, the right to liberty and property, have come to be enjoyed world over because English-speaking people have been willing to fight—and to die—for them.
But we also recognize that the rights and liberties that were set out in the Magna Carta and developed in the U.S. Constitution cannot be established by documentation alone. Constitutional law rests first of all on the law of conscience. As Samuel Adams reminds us, even with the “established custom of a written constitution…even this is of little value in the presence of a dead constitutional morality.”
Learn more about the Magna Carta and its monumental significance by attending in person or live online our next Lessons in Liberty lecture “The Great Charter of Liberty: 800 Years of Significance,” given by Dr. Paul Jehle on Tuesday, June 9.
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of the four original documents, is on tour in the U.S. and is currently on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Read Daniel Hannan's article in the WSJ here.