Monday, January 9, 2017

The Magna Carta - Why It Matters To Americans Today

If you didn't, or don't, like history the the term Magna Carta probably rings a bell, but it seems just a tiny footnote that a teacher wanted you to remember for some unknowable reason.  But the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was extremely important, both in England, and in America.
   By 1215, thanks to years of unsuccessful foreign polices and heavy taxation demands, King John of England was facing down a possible rebellion by the country's most powerful Barons.  Under duress, he agreed to a "charter of liberties" known as the Magna Carta, that would place him and all of England's future sovereigns within a rule of law.  Though it was not initially successful, the document was reissued, with alterations, in 1216, 1217, and 1225.  Eventually it served as the foundation of English common law.  Later generations of Englishmen would celebrate the Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom from oppression - as would the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, who used the Magna Carta as a historical precedent for asserting their liberty from the English crown.
    John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was not the first English king to grant concessions to his citizens - though he was the first to do so under a threat of civil war.  Upon taking the throne in 1100, King Henry I issued a Coronation Charter, in which he promised to limit taxation and the confiscation of church revenues, among other abuses of power. Henry, however, decided to ignore these promises, and the Barons lacked the power to enforce them.  Later, though, the Barons gained more leverage when the English crown needed to fund the Crusades - and then pay the ransom for John's older brother, Richard the Lionheart, who was taken prisoner by the German Emperor during the Third Crusade.
   In 1199, when Richard died without an heir, John was forced to contend with a rival for succession - his nephew, Arthur, the young son of John's elder brother Geoffrey, the Duke of Brittany.  King Phillip of France supported Arthur for England's crown, and there was war.  John won and was able to consolidate his power. But he angered many of his supporters with his cruel treatment of his prisoners - including Arthur, who was probably murdered at John's order. John renewed his war with France, and by 1206 had lost both Normandy and Anjou, along with other continental lands.
    King John began a feud with Pope Innocent III in 1208, which further damaged his prestige.  He then became the first English sovereign to be excommunicated (followed later by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I).  After another embarrassing military defeat by France in 1213, John attempted to refill his treasury - and rebuild his reputation - by demanding scutage (money that was paid in lieu of military service) from the Barons who had not joined him on the battlefields of France.  By this time, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury (whose appointment John opposed), was able to direct the unrest of the Barons and they put increasing pressure on King John for concessions.
    With negotiations stalled in early 1215, civil war broke out, and the rebels, led by Baron Robert FitzWalter, took control of London.  Forced into a corner, King John yielded, and on 15 June 1215 (at Runnymede on the Thames River) John accepted the terms in a document called the Articles of the Barons.  Four days later, after further modifications, the King and Barons issued a formal version of the document which would be known as the Magna Carta.  Intended as a peace treaty, the charter failed it's goals, as civil war broke out again within three months.  King John died in 1216, and the advisers of John's 9-year-old son, Henry III, reissued the Magna Carta with some of it's most controversial clauses removed.  This averted threatened conflict.  The document was reissued in 1217 and once again in 1225, in return for a grant of taxation to the King.
     Written in Latin, the Magna Carta was effectively the first written constitution in European history.  Of it's original 63 clauses, many concerned the various property rights of the Barons and other powerful citizens, which suggests the limited intentions of the framers.  The benefits of the charter were for centuries reserved only for the elite classes, while the majority of citizens still lacked any voice in the government.  In the 17th century, however, two defining acts of English legislation had dramatic implications for future legal systems in the United Kingdom and America.   The Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeus Corpus Act (1679) referred to Clause 39 in the Magna Carta, which states that "no free man shall be... imprisoned or dispossessed... except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."  Clause 40 was also very important - "To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice."
    In 1776, our rebellious forefathers looked to the Magna Carta as a model for their demands of liberty from the English crown.  The legacy of the Magna Carta is especially evident in the Bill of Rights and in the Constitution of the United States of America - and nowhere more so than in the Fifth Amendment ("Nor shall any persons be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law"), which echoes Clause 39, written in 1215.  Many of our state constitutions also include ideas and phrases that can be traced directly to the Magna Carta.

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