Magna Carta: English Roots of American Liberty


Eight hundred years ago, on June 15, 1215, a group of English noblemen stood in Runnymede meadow along the Thames River and said, “No”—no to unlimited monarchical power, no to confiscation of property with impunity, no to legal proceedings without due process. These so-called rebel barons persuaded the reluctant King John to affix his seal to the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.” This was a major step toward the conception and implementation of properly limited government.

Specifically, the Magna Carta set boundaries within which individuals, as well as corporations such as the English church and the City of London, would be free to act without unjustified government intrusion. The charter stated that the government could arrest people only for violations of publicly known laws; that all arrests must be conducted publicly, with a credible witness attesting to the charges; and that the accused were entitled to a swift trial by a jury of their peers. It further stated that the government could not take merchants’ or homeowners’ goods or land without prompt and just compensation, and that the government may not impose excessive fines—meaning, fines that amount to an unjust taking of one’s means of living.

The Magna Carta’s main tenets were integrated into English statute law by 1300 and common law thereafter. This Great Charter was the basis on which jurists such as Edward Coke and William Blackstone rejected the divine right of kings and developed their rights-oriented approach toward legal theory. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament checked the Crown’s arbitrary wielding of power, in part, by grounding their arguments in the aforementioned ideas set forth in the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta was a profound development on the road to a civilized, rights-based society; and the document has had vital, long-reaching ramifications. For instance, several of the original thirteen American colonies modeled their charters on this Great Charter. Leaders of the American Revolution rebelled against King George for violating the “rights of Englishmen”—rights they regarded as implicitly recognized in the Magna Carta. Various elements of the U.S. Constitution—including the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; the writ of habeas corpus in Article 1, Section 9; and the assurance in the Ninth Amendment that the people retain all non-enumerated rights—derive from clauses in the Magna Carta that explicitly limited the state’s power. And U.S. Supreme Court justices have cited the Magna Carta as legal precedent on numerous occasions. For example, the 1989 Browning-Ferris Industries v. Kelco Disposal case concerning excessive fines—and thus property rights—mentions the Magna Carta forty-four times.

In short, the Magna Carta was a pivotal document toward properly limited government.

As Americans prepare for Independence Day celebrations, we would do justice to tip our hats in gratitude to the men who crafted this Great Charter that laid crucial groundwork in support of our cherished liberties.

Here’s to the rebel barons who stood up to a king so long ago!

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4 Responses to Magna Carta: English Roots of American Liberty

  1. georgepickering@googlemail.com'
    George Pickering June 14, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    Excellent article. The only thing I’d add is that it is misleading to think of Magna Carta as an English constitutional document which only happened also to be a mere influence on a separate America political culture. The Great Charter should instead be seen as part of a continuum of Anglosphere constitutional documents, ideas, and events – including the development of the Common Law in the Dark Ages, the summoning of de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution – which define not the constitution of one particular state or another, but rather a unique political culture which the English speaking peoples share as a whole.

    In the post-Cold War world there is virtually no place on earth which does not at least pay lip-service to the values set out in the aforementioned documents: individual liberty, the rule of law, constitutionally limited government, representative democracy, property rights, habeas corpus, and so on. This makes it easy, particularly for those of us living within the Anglosphere, to regard these as being Western or even Universal values, rather than the unique mantle of a particular people. If this is the mindset from which we begin it is understandable that the differences between various English speaking states should seem significant enough to be defining, leading to a conception of nations which, although they may share a language, and come into contact and influence each other from time to time, are fundamentally separate and alien. However, history tells a very different story. Until very recently indeed these ideas were regarded by the rest of the world as a unique peculiarity of English speakers, and many of them to this day are considered bizarre and difficult to understand even by western Europeans. Indeed, it was only as recently as the early 1940s these ideas were confined exclusively to the Anglosphere, and it would only have taken the Cold War to end another way for there to have been nothing universal about them.

    The point is, it is important for people from all sides of the Anglosphere to recognise that we are all joint inheritors of a shared political tradition, of “ancient English liberties” as the US Founders called them, and rights that in many cases stretch back into the unrecorded recesses of the Dark Ages, before England was formed out of the Heptarchy. It is not that “American Liberty” has mere “English Roots”, as the title of this article puts it, but rather that the American political culture, despite certain minor alterations and welcome amplifications, fundamentally remains a continuation of the tradition of English liberty, rather than a deviation or a self-generated invention. As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it is important that people from all sides of the Anglosphere – whether from Ireland to Hong Kong, from New Zealand to Canada, from Australia to America, to Britain, to Singapore, and perhaps even to India – recognise the Great Charter not as an English Law that influenced them, but rather as the written foundation-stone of their own liberty and prosperity, and an essential part of their national identity. This is true for the other essential Anglosphere constitutional documents as well by the way, and is why I as an Englishman, for example, consider the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as indispensable parts of my national heritage, not because they rejected the ancient English liberties, but because they expressly reaffirmed them.

    Anyway, great article! Thank you for writing it.

    • carrieannbiondi@gmail.com'
      Carrie-Ann Biondi June 15, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

      Glad you liked the piece, George! I basically argue, in two of the middle paragraphs of the blog post, for what you say in your first paragraph above. I appreciate, though, your elaboration on the Magna Carta’s deep and pervasive influence on the development of American politics and political theory, as well as how its ideas have been taken up by other countries during the twentieth century.

  2. kgblacksmith@gmail.com'
    karlostj June 16, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    The Magna Carta is the first document to intentionally break the powers of a dictator. It should be celebrated as such, the first of its kind in human history.

  3. carrieannbiondi@gmail.com'
    Carrie-Ann Biondi June 22, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    A quick update on the continuing relevance of the Magna Carta. It was cited four times in the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision on the current “Raisin Farmer case,” just handed down this morning. Here is one instance where they cite the MC:

    “The principle reflected in the [Takings] Clause goes back at least 800 years to Magna Carta, which specifically protected agricultural crops from uncompensated takings. Clause 28 of that charter forbade any “constable or other bailiff” from taking “corn or other provisions from any one without immediately tendering money therefor, unless he can have postponement thereof by permission of the seller.””

    Here is a link to the case:

    http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-275_c0n2.pdf

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