MAGNA CARTA: 800 Years Ago the Foundation for Civil Liberties was Laid

| June 7, 2015

Royal Courts Of Justice June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”).  It is the foundation document for Western government and for civil liberties.  It is renewed by every British monarch and embodied in the United States Constitution.  June 15, 1215 is one of the greatest and most forward looking days in history.

In 1215, there was no recognized legal limits on the power of the King of England.  He ruled with such authority as he could support by the power of his armies.  But King John of England was very unpopular, and he faced a revolt by a strong group of rebel barons.  To end that revolt, he met with the barons at Runnymede and agreed to limit his powers.  Most importantly, the King agreed that the limitations would bind all of his successors, and thereby made the power of government subject to the rule of law.

Magna Carta was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who served as the mediator between King John and the rebel barons.  It was drafted for the security and protection of the nobility, but it provisions were gradually expanded over the years to include all English freemen. When England established its American Colonies, the principles of Magna Carta crossed the Atlantic and were established in those colonial charters.  When the colonies became free and independent States, and when those States became a nation, the same principles were embodied in the United States Constitution.

Magna Carta is the legal fountainhead of our understanding of the limitations on the power of government.  It contains the origins of many of our basic rights, including:

The Right of Liberty under Law: 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…  forever.

The Right of Due Process and Equal Justice: To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice… We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.

Separation of Church and State: the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.

The Limit on the Power of Government to Tax Only on Consent: Levy of taxation will require the king have summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons, severally by our letters.

The Obligation of Government to Respect Private Property: No constable or other bailiff of ours shall take corn or other provisions from anyone without immediately tendering money therefor…

The Right to Carry on Business: All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England …  with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs.

The Right to Travel: It shall be lawful in future for anyone … to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water.

The Right to Pass Your Estate to Your Family: If any freeman shall die intestate, his chattels shall be distributed by the hands of his nearest kinsfolk … saving to every one the debts which the deceased owed to him.

The Rights of Women: A widow, after the death of her husband, shall forthwith and without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance … No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband.

Magna Carta also established an independent body of 25 barons to monitor and ensure King John’s adherence to the agreement, with penalties that the King was subject to if he violated the liberties assured in it.

Over 800 years, Magna Carta has been often challenged, once annulled by Pope Innocent III, and championed by great English jurists like Sir Edward Coke.  It is a document that has changed the world, and laid out the structure of limited government that we know today.


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