June 15 marks an enormously important anniversary in our legal and political history. On this day in 1215, on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede in southern England, King John signed and set his seal to Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” that established the constitutional rule of law for the English-speaking world. 

King John came to the throne in 1199. At that time, England controlled large territories in France. John gradually lost most of these in armed conflict with the French, including Normandy in 1204. These failures severely damaged John’s standing with the nobility, as did the onerous tax assessments he levied on them to fund a series of unsuccessful campaigns to regain the lost territories. Barons who refused to pay their taxes were thrown into prison along with members of their families, further souring relations between the king and the nobility.

In the spring of 1215, following the crushing defeat of English and allied forces by the French at the Battle of Bouvines, a group of disaffected English barons formed an army and marched toward London. Weakened, threatened, and hoping to avoid a civil war, John agreed to meet with the rebellious barons at Runnymede.

Magna Carta was initially drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the immediate practical purpose of avoiding armed conflict between an unpopular king and the rebellious barons. The Great Charter was so named at the time simply because it was a long document; it contained 63 separate articles dealing with a wide range of specific subjects. The true greatness of the charter would only become apparent with the passage of time. 

Magna Carta contains numerous protections for persons and property, including protections against arbitrary imprisonment, the promise of access to swift justice, and limitations on tax assessments. Taken together, they represent the king’s acceptance that, henceforth, the law shall stand above the government, and the limitless law of the ruler shall be replaced with the limiting rule of law. 

That acceptance, 807 years ago today, initiated a centuries-long process of legal and political development that ultimately secured the rights and freedoms we now too often take for granted. Lord Denning, the celebrated 20th century British jurist, described Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary power of the despot.”

The principles of law-limited government contained in Magna Carta had a profound influence on the thinking of the Englishmen who settled our land, and then founded our nation to escape the increasingly abusive usurpations of the British monarchy. In 1637, Maryland sought to incorporate Magna Carta into its basic law, but the colony was blocked from doing so by King Charles I, who considered such an act to be inconsistent with the royal prerogative. In 1775, Massachusetts adopted its official seal showing a patriot with a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other.

In opposing taxation without representation, the American colonists drew directly on Article 12 of Magna Carta: “No scutage or aid shall be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” 

Later, when drafting the Constitution and its first ten amendments, the Framers again drew upon the Magna Carta, for example, its Article 38: “In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” And Article 39: “Nor free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions . . . or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him . . . except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” And, also, Article 40: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” 

Lord Denning was correct to say that Magna Carta laid the “foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary power of the despot.” This is a day to celebrate all that we have been able to build on that foundation, and to remember that, as the threat of despotism is always with us, our work to preserve, protect, and defend what we have built must never cease. 


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