The Magna Carta Turns 800


MagnaCharta5It isn’t too often that we remember something that happened 800 years ago. There are very few dates or events from that period—the Middle Ages—that most people remember. But one event—perhaps the most significant in the English speaking world of this time—was the signing of Magna Carta.

The “Great Charter,” as the Latin “Magna Carta” translates to English, was a milestone event in the historical emergence of individual rights, impartial justice, and the rule of law. In June 1215 (June 15 having been settled upon as the crucial date), King John’s barons extracted important concessions from their monarch. For the first time, the king agreed to the principle that not even the king was above the law and that he could not arbitrarily deprive others of their rights.

As revolutionary as the Magna Carta was, it did not immediately usher in a new era of liberty. Rather, it marked the conception of liberty in embryonic form in the English speaking world. Today, only three of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta remain intact in English law. That shouldn’t be surprising, since most of the clauses dealt with the official relation of the king to his barons. Nevertheless, despite all the changes over the centuries, the ideal of liberty and justice for all has never died out.

I have a personal attachment to this ancient document. Three years ago, when visiting our daughter in England, we made a point, as a family, to see this historic document that served as a forerunner of our own Constitution. Four of the 13 original “exemplifications” (non-identical copies) of the Magna Carta survive. We saw the most well-preserved one, housed in Salisbury Cathedral, a few miles from Stonehenge. It was a poignant pilgrimage. Here are three takeaways:

First, the document, a single sheet of vellum, is small, yet it altered the trajectory of history. The pen indeed is mightier than the sword. From humble beginnings, great ideas take root, flourish, and transform the world.

Second, the writing itself is the supreme achievement of some long-forgotten copyist. Most images of the Magna Carta show a document that was obviously hand-written. The one in Salisbury Cathedral is different. The perfect neatness looks like something printed by today’s hi-tech printers.

Third, the magnificence of Salisbury Cathedral itself does more than provide a sufficiently grand domicile for one of history’s most important documents; it points to the higher source—God Himself—from which justice and individual rights emanate. Freedom, the rule of law, and the protection of individual rights comprise one of the oldest megatrends in human history, at least as old as the Exodus of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Indeed, the Holy Bible itself has a pronounced pro-liberty theme—for example, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17, KJV); “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1, ESV).

However, as venerable as the history of liberty is, freedom remains fragile. Security for individual rights has advanced slowly and fitfully over the centuries, with frequent backsliding. It took more than five centuries from the Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution, and six before slavery was abolished.

Today—when a sitting president enforces laws arbitrarily, a leading presidential candidate acts as though laws apply only to ordinary people but not to her (obeying was not “convenient”), and when federal bureaucracies violate laws with impunity—we may well ask: Could the rule of law be lost? Are today’s “progressives” modern versions of King John who regard themselves as above the law while they seek immense power over our lives and property?

Why do so few Americans push back when ruthless politicians assail our God-given rights? Much of the answer lies in the emptiness of many churches. Individual rights are fruits of the Christian religion. If the roots wither, so does the fruit. We need to ask ourselves: If we are too busy to remember the Lord, the ultimate source of our freedom, how can we remain worthy of freedom’s blessings?

We need the spirit of the Magna Carta today more than ever. A priceless legacy was left to us 800 years ago. Let us never forget nor forsake it.

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mark w. hendricksonDr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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