On this date, June 15, 1215, humanity took one of its greatest steps in the long march toward democracy.
King John of England affixed his seal to the Magna Carta in the meadow at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on this day in the 17th year of his reign. The Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, is regarded as the first chapter of English liberties and one of the most important documents in the history of political and human freedom.
Confronted by 40 rebellious barons, the king consented to their demands in order to avert civil war. Just 10 weeks later, Pope Innocent III – exerting his even higher “divine right” (only one step down from You Know Who) than the mere divine right of a monarch in a far-distant land – nullified the agreement, and England plunged into internal war.
Although Magna Carta failed to resolve the conflict between King John and his barons, it was reissued several times after his death.
Magna Carta was written by this group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances under the feudal system in which they lived. The interests of commoners were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement. But there are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day:
“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised [dispossessed], outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” And
“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
More than 400 years later, the English jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), in a debate in the House of Commons on May 17, 1628, perhaps unwittingly foreshadowed the spirit of republicanism when he openly stated: “Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign.” In that same vein, it was also Coke who affirmed (against royal privilege?) that “a man’s house is his castle.” And it was Coke who anticipated civil disobedience, and even the right of rebellion, when he said, “How long soever it hath continued, if it be against reason, it is of no force in law.” With a deep nod to the Magna Carta, Coke decided in 1610, as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, that the king’s proclamations cannot change the law.
During the American Revolution in the 1770s, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (“no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) is a direct descendent of Magna Carta’s guarantee of proceedings according to the “law of the land.” Obviously – but necessary to repeat – this advanced concept of liberty still fell far short of true universalism in a society that enshrined slavery in the Constitution and proffered the vote only to property-holding white men.
And more than 700 years after its signing, in his 1941 inaugural address, while a new world war raged across the European continent, Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history…. It was written in Magna Carta.”
Four original copies of the 1215 charter survive.
Adapted from the Peace History Index, the National Archives and Records Administration, and other sources.