800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta Is Rich With Relevance

The British Library brought together the four existing original Magna Carta manuscripts from King John's reign for the first time during a three-day "unification event" earlier this year. Photo by Clare Kendall for British Library
The British Library brought together the four existing original Magna Carta manuscripts from King John’s reign for the first time during a three-day “unification event” earlier this year. Photo by Clare Kendall for British Library

June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of King John’s seal on the Magna Carta, one of the most significant documents in the history of democracy.

While only three of the Magna Carta’s original clauses are still a part of British law, this canon was foundational in shaping today’s human rights and personal freedoms, including the freedom to practice religion.

In the U.S., it paved the way for multiple governing documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For instance, the Fifth Amendment — “Nor shall any persons be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” — sounds much like the Magna Carta’s 39th clause.

In 13th-century England, King John wasn’t the most popular ruler. His frivolous spending and lack of concern for his people led to heavy taxation. Upset by his selfish monarchical style, unsatisfied barons demanded something be done. Along with several bishops, they drafted 63 clauses that helped rein in King John, claiming all free men — even the monarch — were subject to the law. In 1215, at Runnymede, England, King John placed his seal of approval on the document that has forever shaped the relationship between governing powers and free men in democratic societies.

Translated from its original Latin, the Magna Carta (Great Charter) states, “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” Applied, it meant every free man had the right to a trial by a jury of his peers.

Rebecca Jones, a high school history teacher in North Carolina, says that while Americans may not hear about the Magna Carta as much as the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it is just as valuable.

“The Magna Carta is one of those old, dusty documents that my students are always really frustrated that they have to learn about because ‘it doesn’t apply to me,'” Jones said. “However, I think that we have to understand that this document is just as important to the foundation of the American political system as our own documents are.

“Those ideas of limiting that power of the king would in turn influence the writing of America’s own founding government. It was also one of the first times in European history that we see a limit on absolute monarchy, something that wouldn’t happen in France until the revolution in 1789 or in Russia until 1918,” Jones said. “It’s very important for me to show my students the progression of representative government throughout world history, and eventually to how it would influence our own.”

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Libby Donaldson

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