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:

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