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.
Even after Americans achieved independence, they retained a reverence for their English heritage. Americans believed that nothing was more fundamental to constitutional liberty than Magna Carta, upon which all English and American rights rested.
Americans were unfamiliar with most of the archaic feudalistic provisions of Magna Carta. Rather it was the general principle of limited government under the rule of law, as opposed to absolute government, that took on symbolic significance.
Virtually every American colonial charter and Revolutionary era state constitution, as well as the new federal Constitution of 1787 and the Bill of Rights of 1791, had provisions based upon the American perception of Magna Carta. Enhancing this general concept, Chapter 40 of Magna Carta declared that “To no one will We sell, to none will We deny or delay, right or justice.” James Madison agreed with this concept when he wrote, in defense of the new federal Constitution, that “Justice is the end of government.”
Two key chapters of Magna Carta were incorporated into practically every American constitutional document. Chapter 39 provided that no man could be deprived of life, liberty, or property without a trial by a jury of his peers under the law of the land, while Chapter 12 evolved into the guarantee that taxes could not be levied without the consent of the direct representatives of the people.
Other rights in Magna Carta, such as just compensation for private property appropriated for government use and the prohibition against excessive fines, also found their way into American constitutional documents, as did the concept of free-flowing commerce, which Magana Carta also embraced.
To 18th-century Americans, Magna Carta was an organic instrument that guaranteed personal liberty and private property. The Stamp Act Congress of 1766 denounced various parliamentary measures that violated freedoms “confirmed by the Great Charter of English Liberty.” There was, in essence, a higher law that ordinary statutory law could not supersede. The new federal Constitution of 1787 would be such a higher law. It would be the Great Charter for the United States.
John P. Kaminski is the author of The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of their Contemporaries, and co-editor of the forthcoming translated volume The Constitution before the Judgment Seat: The Prehistory and Ratification of the American Constitution, 1787–1791 by Jürgen Heideking (both UVA Press).