Don’t Know Much About Magna Carta?

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.

The name “Magna Carta” lives on in the collective memory of modern Americans, but the words have lost their content.  With the exception of a few college history majors and home schooled kids, almost no one knows the story of the tyrannical King John, the rebellious barons led by Archbishop Langton, and the confrontation at Runnymede in A.D. 1215.

Make no mistake; Magna Carta was an enormously important step in the development of American constitutionalism:

  • It was an early attempt at the rule of law – moving from “Rex Lex” (the will of the King is law) to “Lex Rex” (the law is king over all, even the King).
  • It was a preliminary step in the transition of England from absolute to constitutional monarchy.
  • It introduced the concept of liberty for the Church from government control.
  • It laid the groundwork for later statements of individual rights, such as those in the English Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, using phrases such as “the law of the land” and “the lawful judgment of his peers.”

For those who have not read Magna Carta and its story, the effort is well worth the time.

It is also worth remembering, however, that the English constitutional experience, beginning with Magna Carta, was only a starting point for the colonists-turned-patriots here in the United States.  In England, nothing binds the hands of the legislature.  If it wanted to, Parliament could repeal Magna Carta tomorrow.  The government is still supreme.

Our American founders built on principles such as those of Magna Carta and came up with an idea that was unique in human history:  a written document, enacted under the authority of We the People, which would limit the authority and control the discretion of all branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial.  For that, we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Bradley P. Jacob is a professor at the Regent University School of Law

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