Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems


The Magna Carta

Many principles embedded in the American Constitution evolved from the Magna Carta.

In 1776, when the founders needed historical precedence as a legal basis for independence they turned to such educated men as Madison, Franklin, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, Jefferson, et al. These men remembered a gathering that took place 561 years earlier on the plains of Runnymede, not far from where Windsor Castle stands today.

There, on June 15, 1215, an assembly of barons confronted King John with his soldiers who, during the previous year, had lost an important battle to King Philip II at Bouvines, while trying to reclaim inherited lands.

John was cash poor and badly needed additional scutage (money in lieu of military service) from the barons. The barons were not very interested in John's personal war with Philip and used the opportunity to demand concessions from John. They demanded written reconfirmation of Henry I's coronation oath in 1100 AD. This oath theoretically, limited the king's ability to levy taxes. Of course, John refused; the barons rebelled; and a different, very short war ensued. At first the barons were losing but managed to capture London to force a dialog with John. Finally, John agreed and granted a charter.

The document (now lost), issued over John's seal, was known as the "Articles of the Barons." Naturally, the barons didn't like the first version so it went back and forth until, on June 19, a formal version was issued which became known as Magna Carta. One significant deal which was reached in the negotiations was changing the words "any baron" to "any freeman" so that the final document was sort of like a Republican tax cut plan. It included all the people except those who had to work for a living.

John probably figured he could revoke the document at any time but the following year he was killed in the war with Philip. This placed his 9-year-old son, Henry III, on the throne. In 1217, to gain support for the young monarch, the king's regents reissued the charter. This had the desired effect and things went well for the next ten years. Then, in 1227, the little snit revoked the charter and set off a series of events which plagued England for the rest of Henry's tenure, but that's another story.

Between June 19, 1215 and 1297, 37 versions of Magna Carta were issued and every one of them stated absolutely that it was the final version, to be in force forever, and could never be altered by anyone; sort of like today's promises of not spending the Social Security surplus or the guarantee of life in prison without parole.

As new monarchs came along, new copies of the document were made and sent out to the counties. Of these "original" issues of Magna Carta, 17 survive: 4 from the reign of John; 8 from Henry III; and 5 from Edward I, including a 1297 version owned by Ross Perot and LOANED, for display, to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It will probably stay there until it's value is high enough to suit Perot, at which time it will be DONATED, taken as a tax deduction, and then we all get to help pay for it. What a country! I do love it so.

In the 1620's comes Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General for Queen Elizabeth and Chief Justice during the reign of James. Coke was a leader in Parliament in opposition to Charles I, who was yanked off the throne in 1648 and executed in 1649.

Coke had long recognized that almost all of the general public and most public officials were kind of like we are today, illiterate, not paying attention, or too lazy to think about it, so he set about "adjusting" the concept of Magna Carta. He proclaimed "the original intent" was that freedoms and rights applied to EVERYONE. (See "Petition of Right," Coke, 1628). Although judges, kings, and others resisted, the notion caught on with the general public and over the next 150 years people thought of Magna Carta as a definition of rights for EVERYONE--except whoever they wanted to exclude--without writing it down.

This idea--EVERYBODY, except--was a very popular concept with the Puritans and other religious organizations. It even worked it's way into the Declaration of Independence with such phrases as "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," and into the Constitution, "We the people" and the Bill of Rights. At the time, reality among most folks was that the guarantees apply to US but not to THEM. Many in the public who supported the Declaration and Constitution never gave it a second thought. They NEVER envisioned that it REALLY meant what it said: EVERYONE. Of course, they thought, it DIDN'T mean slaves, bonded servants, blacks, sinners, etc.

The founders, the most educated men of the time, never bothered to explain that THEY intended it to mean exactly what it said. (See the Federalist Papers). This dichotomy is the reason that the Amendments which became the Bill of Rights were not embedded in the Constitution but were approved soon thereafter. Ol' George, John(s), Thomas, Alexander, etc., knew that they needed to wait until they had a wider base to make the really good stuff work.

Sir Edward Coke was a very interesting person. He espoused another concept. In 1628, he proclaimed to Parliament, "Magna Carta ...will have no sovereign." Translation: "no person is above the law." This concept was held dear for 371 years, a nice long run. Then, in 1999, Democrats, defense lawyers, historians, soccer moms, blacks, and the press, joined forces to modify it for their favorite scoundrel, Bill Clinton.

Concepts from Magna Carta led to the English Bill of Rights and later to our own Bill of Rights, especially, due process, trial by jury, and habeas corpus.

Philosophos Historia


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