Editor’s Note: In less than a month we will wish the Declaration of Independence a big “Happy Birthday.”. Today is the birthday of another charter of freedom less celebrated in America — the Magna Carta, to which King John agreed in 1215. To commemorate the occasion and highlight the English origins of American constitutionalism, the National Constitution Center commissioned a series of Magna Carta blog posts, which we publish today in this special edition of Constitution Daily.
When Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester, confronted England’s King John in Runnymede, England, on June 15, 1215, he and his fellow noblemen threatened civil war unless John signed a document agreeing to grant “to all free men…all the liberties written below,” including protection against government taking of a person’s life, liberty or property “except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”
Amazingly, five and one-half centuries later—on June 15, 1775—Quincy’s direct descendant, Boston lawyer Josiah Quincy, went to London with a similar warning—that a revolution had started in America and would cost England her colonies if she did not extend the guarantees of the Magna Carta to Americans.
By then, Quincy’s home state of Massachusetts had already declared independence and raised a militia that routed British troops along the road from Concord and Lexington. The Massachusetts Assembly appointed Quincy’s cousin by marriage, John Adams, to draw up the first constitution in the Americas, and Adams’s work subsequently served as a basis for constitutions in nine of the thirteen states. “The fundamentals of the constitution of this province,” Adams asserted, “are stipulated in the Charter [Magna Carta],”
The Adams constitution became a model as well for the U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787 in Philadelphia. Unlike the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution itself did not deal with individual rights; it was simply a framework for a federal government. The Bill of Rights, written by the First Congress two years later in 1789, not only reaffirmed the Magna Carta’s guarantee of the right to trial by jury, but added such guarantees as individual rights to free speech, free press, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition government.
Harlow Giles Unger is the author of 20 books on the founding era, including American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution and Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, both published by Da Capo Press.