Government By Law

It is perhaps worth a moment of our time this day – especially at a time when governmental overreach may be compromising fundamental rights – to reflect that Magna Carta was signed by England’s King John at Runnymeade on this day, June 15, approximately 798 years ago in 1215. Magna Carta – The Great Charter – is aptly named.

Magna Carta looms large in our history and in our daily lives for two important reasons: Magna Carta delineated certain rights, protections, and liberties which evolved into those we enjoy to this day, such as Due Process, Habeas Corpus, and trial by jury. Far more importantly, though, Magna Carta established The Fundamental Principle that The Government would be documentably Responsible To The Governed and documentably Limited In Its Powers. No King of England could claim as France’s Louis XIV did, “I am the state!” (Well, he said: “L’etat c’est moi!“)

Even when England’s monarchs enjoyed their greatest degree of personal power during the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, they were constrained by law in ways that other monarchs around the globe were not. Clause 29 of Magna Carta, which remains in force in English law to this day, requires due process of law for all punishments.

In April of 1603, as King James VI of Scotland made his procession from Edinburgh to London to ascend the English throne upon the death of his cousin Elizabeth, a thief was caught stealing from his household. King James ordered the officials of Newark to have the man hanged immediately, which was done. This autocratic exercise of power horrified King James’ English subjects. No King of England had been able to decree such punishment for almost four centuries. Sir John Harington wrote, “I hear our new King hath hanged one man before he was tried. ‘Tis strangely done; now if the wind bloweth thus, why not a man be tried before he hath offended?”

When the English began establishing colonies on the Atlantic Coast of North America, Magna Carta formed a fundamental basis for colonial law. The Virginia Charter of 1606 provided for the continuance of the liberties guaranteed English subjects in Magna Carta. The Charter of Massachusetts Bay did likewise. William Penn, founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, expressly interpreted Magna Carta as providing for Habeas Corpus and Jury trial within his colony. Maryland wished to incorporate Magna Carta explicitly into the colony’s fundamental law, but a wary King Charles I, who insisted upon his devine right to rule, was unwilling to authorize such a check upon his desired powers. The English colonists in the New World expressly and implicitly carried Magna Carta with them. Indeed, it was the violations of the Rights of Englishmen by King George III and the Parliament which fomented the revolution which resulted in an independent United States of America. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson delineated the King’s many tyrannies, including several abrogations of Magna Carta. Specifically cited were the King’s refusal to respect colonial legislatures, the displacement of Common Law in Quebec, and the denial of the right to trial established in Magna Carta. The fundamental law established in Magna Carta was the basis for the very notion of a written and clearly codified constitution. Magna Carta is truly the direct ancestor of the Constitution of the United States of America. The heritage of Magna Carta was similarly profound in other English colonies.

The main features of Magna Carta were not for the general populace, of course, but rather for the elite nobility, the Barons. Our true inheritance from this document is that it paved the way for our own U. S. Constitution and the principle of the rule of law (even if it be often bent or breached!) It is no accident that the history of the English Common Law nations is not repleat with strong men and all-powerful monarchs; it is no accident that no English Common Law nation has ever been home to a brutal dictatorship. The precedent of Magna Carta – that The Law is above the ruler and not the ruler above The Law – makes hard ground for authoritarian regimes to flourish.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We are slaves of the law so that we can be free. — Cicero

Further Reading:

Libraries of analyses and interpretations of Magna Carta have been written, of course, many for the legal scholar or specialist. But one very interesting and reasonably light treatment that is worth a look is:

1215: The Year Of Magna Carta, Danny Danziger and John Dillingham; Touchstone, 2005: ISBN-10: 0743257782

One can locate the portions of Magna Carta which remain in effect, unchanged, in English law by consulting this site:

A Bloody Coup In The Balkans

On the night of 10-11 June 1903, 115 years ago today, officers of the Serbian Army staged a palace coup by murdering with almost unimaginable brutality Serbian King Alexander and his Queen Draga in the Royal Palace in Belgrade.

Serbia styled itself a kingdom, yet to the majority of Europe it was viewed as a principality. Though Serbia had been independent of the Ottoman Empire in fact for more than 70 years by 1903, its status as a truly independent state had only been confirmed by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Serbia’s internal politics had been notably turbulent throughout the 19th Century, and the competition between the dominant noble families often led to bloodshed. To a certain extent, though the bloody coup of 1903 horrified Europe, no one was really greatly surprised; it was, after all, Serbia. Therefore the coup was met by expressions of shock and official condemnations, but beyond the recalling of ambassadors, the powers of Europe declines to intervene.

In the aftermath of the coup, the Serbian legislature, guided by leaders of the coup, selected a new king. Butchered King Alexander was of the house of Obrenović which had dominated Serbian politics for almost a century. After the coup, the rival house of Karađorđević was placed upon the throne. The Obrenović rulers had long gravitated toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whereas the Karađorđević clan favored the Russian Empire. Many of the key leaders of the coup were quietly removed from their military duties to placate other European nations’ demands for justice for the murdered royals, but these conspirators were either pensioned off or “kicked upstairs” to positions of greater power and influence.

Do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Naturally, I am convinced that the answer is a firm and resounding “Yes!” In studying the events that led up to the ignition of the First World War, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie has always seemed especially difficult to understand. The most challenging aspect of the assassination, which has been referred to as “the spark that touched off the powder keg,” is the astonishingly self-destructive role that Serbia played in the crime. Why did Serbia sponsor and supply the assassins? What did Serbia hope to gain from such barbarity?

I must honestly admit that I cannot supply an answer to that question. Yet I do perceive a potent connection and a possible line of inquiry. For this Serbian coup (known as the “May Coup” because Serbia remained officially on the Julian calendar) was principally planned and the actual assassinations were led by a young officer named Dragutin Dimitrijević. His role in the coup was rewarded, and he eventually rose to become Serbia’s Chief of Intelligence. Dragutin Dimitrijević had an almost fanatical commitment to the unification of all Serbs, including those living under the rule of Austria-Hungary; he was a prime figure in the secret Serbian nationalist organization known as “The Black Hand.”

It was Dragutin Dimitrijević who sponsored the Young Bosnian assassins of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and who supplied them with bombs, poisons, and guns.

So: do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If there is ever another war in Europe,
it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.

— Otto Von Bismarck, 1890

Madness In Salem

Take an unseasonably long and cold winter after a poor harvest, a minor epidemic, (probably flu) and an unsuccessful military campaign against restive local tribes, then add a few unprovable accusations from unlikely sources, a populace wary and uneasy, fearing attacks by unseen foes, and authorities inclined to presume the worst, and you have a witches’ brew of explosive and lethal ingredients. In Salem, Massachsuetts, in 1692, such a mixture produced deadly results that resonate yet today. On 10 June 1692, Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, was hanged.

The madness started four months earlier when two young girls became sick with “fits” which were diagnosed as the results of a bewitching. In the course of their seizures, these girls identified several local women as possible witches. The hunt was on.

Local authorities arrested one of the women whom the girls had identified, a maid who was a West Indies native. This woman, Tituba, had used some of her folk remedies to try to cure the girls, and such remedies were rather akin to spells and magic. The investigating officials offered to spare Tituba the worst penalties if she would name other witches. Not surprisingly, she did so quite readily. During her examination, Tituba expanded and embellished her descriptions with lurid accounts of conversations with the “Devill,” sightings of monstrous “hayry” beasts, and rides through the misty nights on wooden poles. Several of Salem’s townfolk were named in the course of her account. The hunt expanded.

By June, the Governor of Massachusetts empowered a special court to conduct trials of the accused witches. The judges included an ancestor of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, one John Hathorne. The president of the court, William Stoughton, was a fanatical prosecutor of witches, and he vowed to “clear the land” of witches and sorcerers. Most of the judges were not trained in the law, and had no idea as to how to conduct a proper trial, especially in the matter of witchcraft. As a result, the judges relied heavily on the advice of local clergymen such as the famous Cotton Mather.

Mather suggested admitting testimony that was even then quite improper, such as accounts of dreams, and third-hand reports of rumored conversations. With no effective restrictions upon what might be testified in court, folks with old grudges to settle made wild accusations about their neighbors. Bridget Bishop was particularly unpopular: she was a woman of “low character” (she may have run a small-time brothel!) and she was well-known for failing to pay her bills. She had no friends in Salem, but plenty of enemies.

Those who protested the madness, or simply failed to enthusiastically support it were at risk of being accused. John Proctor, who figures as a key character in Arthur Miller’s allegorical play about the witch hunts, The Crucible, was an outspoken sceptic and critic of the trials. He soon found himself accused. Though Proctor demanded the trial be moved to Boston, and denounced the confessed witches as liars, he was nevertheless hanged.

After Bridget was hanged on 10 June, the pace of the trials began to pick up. Before the summer was over, more than 150 of the Salem area’s perhaps 8,000 residents were accused of witchcraft. Twenty-four “witches”, 16 women and 8 men, were executed – mainly by hanging – or died in prison before the Governor at last dissolved the local court in October and and established a Superior Court to hear the remaining cases. The new court adhered to more stringent rules of evidence and subsequently handed down no more convictions. The madness was running out of steam.

In the later 19th Century and early 20th, Salem’s terrifying episode was explained as “mass delusion,” the theory being that everyone in town fell under the spell of suggestibility, as if a mass hypnosis had taken hold. That has some appeal: it would explain the flying and the visions that so many attested. Notably lacking, however, was an agent which could explain how this mass delusion/hypnotism was effected.

In the 1970’s, professor Linnda Caporael published a paper, Ergotism: The Satan loosed in Salem? Ergot is a grain fungus which is especially prevalent on rye growing in damp ground, or during mild, rainy weather. Rye was a standard crop in New England, and one may fairly assume it was grown in and around Salem, especially in the more poorly drained fields around the village which are known to have been cultivated, but which would have been unsuitable for wheat or barley.

The effect of ergot fungus is variable: ingested in small quantities it can make a person ill; in large quantities it causes hallucinations and convulsions, the sensation of things crawling on the skin, and a sense of soaring through the air. These symptoms may sound like a “bad acid trip,” and that is hardly surprising. Ergot fungus produces a variety of alkaloid compounds, including “isoergine,” lysergic acid amide, a weaker cousin of “LSD,” lysergic acid diethylamide.

Though Caporael’s thesis is unproven, and ultimately unprovable, it does have the great advantage of potentially explaining the symptoms of the Salem “victims of witchcraft,” and being plausible as well. Ergotism is real, its symptoms do present in a manner akin to demonic possession, and rye was a staple in the region. So, while we cannot know whether or not ergotism is the true cause of the victim’s distress, it seems likely. And it is comforting to think that there may have been an actual, organic cause for the afflictions, rather than either mass hysteria or over-arching malice.

Other organic causes have been suggested as well, including various viral and genetic diseases, and the matter is still fiercely debated. As I say, it is almost certain that we will never be able to know for certain. But there must have been some actual cause, I believe. I am not yet ready to be convinced that the Devil himself dwelt for nine months among and within the villagers of Salem.

And what of those who never developed symptoms, yet perpetuated the prosecutions and the persecutions? One historian has sought to explain the astonishing culpability of the judges involved by noting that they may have been using the witch hysteria to deflect their own roles in the unsuccessful campaigns on the frontiers. The military adventures had been ill prepared, and the citizens of Massachusetts were unhappy with their leadership. A focus on a new, far more manageable threat may have been politically expedient: it was an easy way to show that the authorities were doing something to protect the colony.

Five years later, the judges – except Stoughton – issued a collective admission of error and guilt, and made a public apology; Massachusetts observed an annual day of prayer and fasting for forgiveness due for the sins of the trials, and even paid compensation to the survivors.

Salem’s experience has ever after stood as a reminder that in times of anxiety and stress, it is especially crucial to be careful and deliberate when identifying the source of our woes. And from Salem we have inherited the term “Witch hunt” to describe an energetic, often paranoid and self-satisfying quest to find enemies within.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It were better that ten suspected witches should escape
than one innocent person should be condemned.

— Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather,
in his work Cases of Conscience about standards of evidence


The Witchhunt:

The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into The Salem Witch Trials, Marion L. Starkey; Anchor Books, 1949 (reprint ed. 1969): ISBN: 0385035098

In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton; Vintage, 2002: ISBN: 0375706909

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum; Harvard University Press, 1976: ISBN: 0674785266


The Day Of Saint Anthony’s Fire, John Grant Fuller; MacMillan and Company, 1968: Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 68-23632

A Milestone Along The Information Super Highway

It was on this day, 8 June 1887, that Herman Hollerith filed for United States Patent 395,781 – his second – for an electro-mechanical tabulating machine which used punch cards to record and store data. Though punched cards had been used for more than a century to control looms and to program music boxes, clock organs, and the like, Hollerith was the first to use them to tabulate data electronically. As such, this patent represents a major milestone in the evolution of the Information Age and of the computers which are so completely ubiquitous in our daily lives. Hollerith’s original tabulators were not programmable, and were built to perform specific tasks, but later modifications permitted limited, dynamic repurposing of the tabulators, a precursor of true programmability.

Hollerith’s tabulators were first used by the U.S. Census Bureau to tabulate the data on the 1890 Census. Previous census data had taken many years to produce; the first reports of the 1890 Census were available in late 1891. Such an impressive result led to an immediate interest in the machines and their potential business applications. Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. This corporation later merged with two competitors to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company, which in 1924 under the leadership of Thomas J. Watson was rechristened the International Business Machines Company, better known as IBM.

There are numerous sources about Hollerith and his patents, but the definitive material resides with The United States Patent and Trademark Office. These days, one can use that child of Hollerith’s heritage, “The Web,” to access the USPTO database. Search for Hollerith, and you will find a wealth of data, including drawings of his machines. Take a look at:

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Digital technology is the solvent leaching the glue out of all of our traditional institutions. — Paul Saffo, S.F. Chronicle, 19 February 2006

6 June 1944: D-Day

It is certainly proper that we take a moment in our busy schedules to remember the momentous event of 69 years ago today.

The 20th century, like any other, was fully provided with great and terrible moments, and instances that have changed the course of history. Nevertheless, if there be one day – one isolated day – that can truly be called the single most important day in the last century, then surely D-Day must be that day.

It was on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 that I began periodically sending these historical notes. I must mark this anniversary, especially as there has recently been something of a distressing trend to minimize or denigrate the significance of D-Day. I feel a personal connection to this crucial historic event because my late father, Bill Rawson, Senior, flew his first bombing missions, co-piloting a lead bomber at the age of 19, in support of the invasion.

Sixty-nine years ago, Tuesday 6 June 1944, the leaders of the forces allied against Hitler’s terrible Reich gambled men and materièl on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen (and which we may ardently hope it never will see again!) At 0630 on 6 June, the first waves of what was to become a force 156,000 strong hit the beaches of Normandy to establish an allied toehold on the continent of Europe and to effect the beginning of the end for Hitler’s ghastly regime.

We know, live with, and daily benefit from the results of this day, but we may easily forget the risks that were then associated with the invasion and we rarely explore the dire consequences that a failure would have brought. It is easy to ignore the possibility of failure in the light of 69 years of hindsight, and we often tend to see that which has happened as inevitable. But to those involved at the time, the risks were real and the possibility of failure was keenly sensed; General Eisenhower carefully prepared his official statement in the event of failure. As it turned out, the invasion was successful beyond the most optimistic projections of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Planners’ predictions of the day’s casualties ranged from a low of 12% to a high of 60%; the actual results were far, far better despite the terrible fighting on “Bloody Omaha.” Recently, extensive archival research has been conducted to provide an accurate and precise total for the day’s actual casualties. Historically, the total allied casualties for that day were reported as fewer than 6,000, about 4% of the 156,000 troops landed that day, with about 2,400 of these being fatalities. The recent research, as reported at the British D-Day Museum website, gives revised totals standing at nearly 10,000 total casualties and almost 4,000 fatalities. The final human cost was enormous, but even adjusted to the newer 6% figure, it was far below what had been expected. And for a historical perspective, These losses were about the same as those which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia incurred in a single day at Gettysburg.

The invasion inescapably wrought death and destruction on the population of Normandy. The towns, villages, and farms of Normandy suffered under allied bombing and Nazi shelling, and from the ground battles that were fought across the Norman countryside. A 2009 article in the New York Times estimates that there were nearly 20,000 French civilian casualties as a result of the 10-weeks of fighting that followed the invasion. Allied tanks and armor bulldozed great swathes through the ancient hedgerows of the picturesque Norman farms. Driving through Normandy in early July of 1977, I noted that it was still easy to identify the route that the tanks had taken, because the relative newness of the hedgerows that had regrown was plainly visible, even 33 years after the invasion.

Within a few hours of the start of the invasion, it became clear that the allied forces could hold their beachheads. It took weeks for the armies to break out of Normandy, and it was almost a year before Germany capitulated, yet the outcome plainly hinged upon this daring gamble. The gamble succeeded for many, many reasons, of course. But today we should remember and be grateful to the soldiers of Free France, Canada, Great Britain, and The United States of America, as well as those of smaller contingents from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland, whose courage and determination made the victory a reality, and who allowed us to live and grow in a world where the open brutality and blunt terrorism of nations is less common, and the horrors of war less frequent than in the first half of the 20th century, albeit such horror is undeniably still far too frequent.

And we should remember that there are hundreds of thousands of men and women serving us around the world today. Some are directly in harm’s way, others well-removed from the front. But all serve. These people, too, deserve our thanks. So as we remember and honor the men and women of what Tom Brokaw has aptly styled “The Greatest Generation,” we should also say thank you to those who today rise to the challenge and serve a great nation even unto their last full measure.

My thanks to all who have served and who do serve in any capacity. I am deeply grateful for your sacrifices. Thank you. It cannot be said too frequently. Thank you.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

In war, resolution;
in defeat, defiance;
in victory magnanimity;
in peace, goodwill.

— Winston Churchill


Online Resources:

The Portsmouth British D-Day Museum Website:

The U.S. National D-Day Museum Website:

New York Times Article:


For D-Day, there are, I feel, three essential books. First and foremost is Cornelius Ryan’s classic The Longest Day. First published in 1951, Ryan’s work was the first comprehensive distillation of the massive official documentation of D-Day (from both the archives of the allies and the Third Reich) supplemented with extensive personal interviews. Ryan was a journalist, and the style of The Longest Day reflects that background, but his work is a landmark of contemporary history. An excellent and highly readable work, The Longest Day is an excellent starting point from which to learn more about D-Day.

The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day, Cornelius Ryan; Simon & Schuster, 1994: ISBN: 0671890913

John Keegan, sometimes called “the Dean of Military History” was inspired by his childhood memories of watching the preparations leading up to D-Day in rural England. He became a historian and specialized in military history, bursting onto the mainstream literary scene in 1976 with his outstanding The Face of Battle, a study of three famous battles, comparing and contrasting them. In 1982, Keegan published Six Armies In Normandy, an account of D-Day that goes further that Ryan’s by following the invasion up to the Liberation of Paris two months later. Keegan is a wonderfully engaging writer who never forgets that history should be as interesting to read as the best fiction, while maintaining impeccable academic standards.

Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, John Keegan; Penguin, 1994: ISBN: 0140235426

Stephen Ambrose completed D-Day as a tribute to the 50th anniversary 19 years ago. This book was one of Ambrose’s most successful efforts to reach beyond the academic world and into the mainstream. And in this book Ambrose managed to crossover into popular publishing without compromising academic rigorousness or integrity. (Later, his popular success led to unfortunate carelessness which resulted in accusations of plagiarism, but this book predates that time.) D-Day is scrupulously well-researched and includes material from thousands of interviews which Ambrose conducted. The book reads so breathtakingly that you find yourself almost anxious to learn the outcome! This is among Ambrose’s best, and a must-read to learn more about D-Day. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers is an excellent supplement, containing extensive material from interviews with participants from D-Day through to The Bulge.

D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Stephen E. Ambrose; Simon & Schuster, 1995: ISBN: 068480137X.