The Magna Carta created the moral and political premise that, in many ways, the American founding was built upon. The Magna Carta came to represent the idea that the people can assert their rights against an oppressive ruler and that the power of government can be limited to protect those rights. These concepts were clearly foundational and central to both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
First, a bit of history about Magna Carta — its full name was Magna Carta Libertatum which is Latin for “Great Charter of Freedoms.” But, it became commonly known as simply Magna Carta or the “Great Charter.” It was written in 1215 to settle an intense political dispute between King John of England and a group of barons who were challenging King John’s absolute right to rule. The terms of the charter were negotiated over the course of three days. When they reached agreement on June 15, 1215, the document was signed by the King and the barons at Runnymede outside of London.
This was a time when kings asserted the absolute right to rule, and that they were above the law and that they were personally chosen to rule by God. At this time, even questioning the King’s power was both treasonous and an act of defiance to God himself.
The Magna Carta limited the king’s absolute claim to power. It provided a certain level of religious freedom or independence from the crown, protected barons from illegal imprisonment, and limited the taxes that the crown could impose upon the barons, among other things. It did not champion the rights of every Englishman. It only focused on the rights of the barons. But, it was an important start to the concept of limiting the absolute power of governments or kings that claimed God had given them the absolute right to rule.
Magna Carta is important because of the principles it stood for and the ideas that it came to represent — not because it lasted a long time. Shortly after signing the charter, King John asked Pope Innocent III to annul it, which he did. Then there was a war known as the First Barons War that began in 1215 and finally ended in 1217.
After King John died in 1216, the regency government of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III reissued the Magna Carta, after having stripped out some of its more “radical” elements in hopes of reuniting the country under his rule. That didn’t work, but at the end of the war in 1217, the original Magna Carta’s terms became the foundation for a peace treaty.
Over the following decades and centuries, the importance of Magna Carta ebbed and flowed depending on the current king’s view of it and his willingness to accept it, or abide by it its concepts. But subsequent kings further legitimized or confirmed the principles of Magna Carta — often in exchange for some grant of new taxes or some other political concession. But the path towards limited government and individual rights had been planted and continued to grow.
Despite its relatively short political life as a working document, Magna Carta created and memorialized the idea that the people had the right to limit the powers of their government and they had the right to protect basic and important rights. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, the political lore of Magna Carta grew and the idea of an ancient source for individual rights became cemented in the minds of reform-minded political scholars, thinkers and writers.
Obviously, it wasn’t as written in 1215 a document that protected the rights of the average Englishman. It only protected English barons. But the concepts of individual rights and the limitations of governmental power had grown and were starting to mature. Magna Carta was the seed of those powerful concepts of freedom and constitutionally limited government. By the 17th and 18th Centuries, those arguing for reforms and greater individual rights and protections used Magna Carta as their foundation. These ideas are at the very center of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
As English settlers came to the shores of North America, they brought with them charters under the authority of the King. The Virginia Charter of 1606 promised the English settlers all the same “liberties, franchises and immunities” as people born in England. The Massachusetts Bay Company charter acknowledged the rights of the settlers to be treated as “free and natural subjects.”
In 1687, William Penn, an early American leader, who had at one point been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his political and religious views, published a pamphlet on freedom and religious liberty that included a copy of the Magna Carta and discussed it as a source of fundamental law. American scholars began to see Magna Carta as the source of their guaranteed rights of trial by jury and habeas corpus (which prevented a king from simply locking up his enemies without charges or due process). While that isn’t necessarily correct history, it is part of the growth of the seed of freedom and liberty that Magna Carta planted.
By July 4, 1776, the idea that government could, and should be, limited by the consent of its citizens and that government must protect individual rights was widely seen as springing forth from Magna Carta. The beautiful and important words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration spring from the fertile soil of Magna Carta:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Obviously, Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of liberty and freedom had developed a great deal since Magna Carta was penned in 1215. But, it is impossible to read Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and not see the common DNA.
When the Founders debated, drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it is also clear they were creating a set of rules and procedures to limit and check the power of government and to guarantee basic, individual rights.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” is a concept that comes from Magna Carta. Our constitutional guarantees of “a speedy trial” as found in the Sixth Amendment are also founded in the political thought that grew from Magna Carta. The Constitution’s guarantee of the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” (Art.1, Sec. 9) is also a concept that grew from Magna Carta.
Even the phrase “the law of the land” comes from Magna Carta’s history. And now we use that phrase in the United States to describe our Constitution which we proudly label “the law of the land.”
To this day, Magna Carta is an important symbol of liberty in both England and the United States.
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are in my estimation the two most important and influential political documents ever written. What they did to provide promote and protect the freedom, opportunity and security of the average person is almost impossible to overstate. As British Prime Minister William Gladstone said in 1878, “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
I believe Gladstone was correct. But, Magna Carta was an important development in political thought and understanding about government power and individual rights. It is difficult to imagine the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution without the foundational elements provided by Magna Carta.