Tag: magna carta

Getting King John To Sign Magna Carta Was Only Half The Battle

The very day King John pledged to uphold Magna Carta, June 20, 1215, he asked Pope Innocent III to annul it.  The pope replied, “We utterly reject and condemn this settlement and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed.”

So, John reneged on his agreement with the barons, they rebelled and formed an alliance with King Philip II of France who prepared to invade England.  Before long, the French Prince Louis entered London, and the French controlled castles throughout England.  The English Church, however, backed John and refused to crown Lewis as England’s king. 

John fled from his pursuers, but somewhere along the line he contracted dysentery and was dying.  He appointed 13 executors including William Marshal who was among the most revered knights in England.  John died on October 19, 1216,  and his nine-year-old son was hastily crowned Henry III.  Because he was under-age, Marshal formed a regency government.  Although Marshal was able to seize an important English castle from the French, the civil war was substantially stalemated.

With John gone, the rebel barons found themselves in an awkward position – their alliance with foreigners who occupied England.  Patriotic English wanted to get the French out.  Fortunately, Prince Louis was happy to collect a bribe, and soon the French went home.

Regent Marshal recognized that there was more likely to be domestic peace if some fundamental legal issues were resolved and that consequently John’s repudiation of Magna Carta must be reversed.   So Marshal reviewed the document, made some cuts, and reissued Magna Carta in late 1216.   Among the cuts was paragraph 61 about the committee of 25 barons who would monitor the king’s compliance with Magna Carta and, if necessary, try to enforce it.  Perhaps less important than those words was the fact that the barons had demonstrated their willingness to use force against a tyrannical king.

From the Rights of Englishmen to the Inalienable Rights of All Men

Daniel Hannan writes in the Wall Street Journal today about Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary will also be celebrated at a Cato conference next week. Alas, he persists in an error that I regret to say he’s made before.

Hannan is a great advocate of liberty and particularly of English liberty. His patriotism is admirable in an English representative to the European Parliament. But he fails to grasp the shift in the idea of liberty that took place in America in the 1770s. Hannan, I think correctly, celebrates Magna Carta as the great foundation of ordered liberty, of what I have called the greatest libertarian achievement in history, bringing power under the rule of law:

As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.

But he goes wrong when he glosses over the change in thinking that occurred around 1776 in the American colonies:

The American Revolutionaries weren’t rejecting their identity as Englishmen; they were asserting it. As they saw it, George III was violating the “ancient constitution” just as King John and the Stuarts had done. It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist, in the words of the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, “as Englishmen our ancestors in like cases have usually done.”

Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights. On the contrary, they were very clear that they were fighting for the privileges bestowed on them by Magna Carta. The concept of “no taxation without representation” was not an abstract principle. It could be found, rather, in Article 12 of the Great Charter: “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” In 1775, Massachusetts duly adopted as its state seal a patriot with a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other.

I recount these facts to make an important, if unfashionable, point. The rights we now take for granted—freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on—are not the natural condition of an advanced society. They were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words.

When we call them universal rights, we are being polite.

It’s true that the colonists came here with the spirit of English liberty running in their veins. They brought with them the books of Locke and Sydney, the examples of Lilburne and Hampden, the writings of Edward Coke. In the 18th century they read Cato’s Letters and William Blackstone. They petitioned Parliament and the king for their rights as Englishmen. 

But the Declaration of Independence marks a break in that thinking. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write “an expression of the American mind,” he did not appeal to the rights of Englishmen. Instead, the Americans declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (emphases added)

They appealed not to the British Parliament nor to King George III, but rather to “the opinions of mankind…a candid world…the Supreme Judge of the world.” Hannan glosses over this when he makes reference to 1774 and writes, “Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights.” True, not in 1774. But by 1776, when Thomas Paine published Common Sense, in which he defended “the natural rights of all mankind” and denounced kings as “ruffians” and “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti,” and the Continental Congress made its case on the basis of the unalienable rights of all men, American thinking had changed. Americans declared their belief in universal rights and their independence from a nation that denied those rights.

As I was researching this post, I found a similar argument from Tim Sandefur a year ago. Alas, Hannan persists in making this error year after year. Besides citing the argument of the Declaration, Sandefur presents in evidence the thoughts of John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Constitution:

English liberties had failed [the Patriots]. From the omnipotence of Parliament the colonists appealed to the rights of man and the omnipotence of the God of battles. Union! Union! was the instinctive and simultaneous cry throughout the land. Their Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, once—twice had petitioned the king; had remonstrated to Parliament; had addressed the people of Britain, for the rights of Englishmen—in vain. Fleets and armies, the blood of Lexington, and the fires of Charlestown and Falmouth, had been the answer to petition, remonstrance and address.

Independence was declared. The colonies were transformed into States. Their inhabitants were proclaimed to be one people, renouncing all allegiance to the British crown; all co-patriotism with the British nation; all claims to chartered rights as Englishmen. Thenceforth their charter was the Declaration of Independence. Their rights, the natural rights of mankind. Their government, such as should be instituted by themselves, under the solemn mutual pledges of perpetual union, founded on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration…. The omnipotence of the British Parliament was vanquished. The independence of the United States of America, was not granted, but recognized. The nation had “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature, and of nature’s God, entitled it.”

Daniel Hannan is a thoughtful, forceful, and eloquent advocate of liberty under law. But he needs to read the Declaration of Independence and respect what it says, that the United States of America, though inspired by the tradition of English liberty, was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that those rights reside in all men and women in every country of the earth.

 

Magna Carta Day

The liberties we Americans enjoy were hard-won over the centuries. Today we mark a major event in that struggle, the day in 1215 when English barons presented King John with a written list of rights they demanded he recognize. Known ultimately as Magna Carta, the Great Charter, it was a compact between the barons and their king, a political effort by subjects to secure their liberty by placing their ruler under the rule of law, thus limiting arbitrary power.

The charter has gone through several iterations, but it drew in part from the common law rights, especially rights of property, that judges in the king’s courts had been finding from reason and custom as they decided controversies the king’s subjects brought before them. What Magna Carta did was bring those same rights against the king. Most important for us today was the promise found in clause 29:

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, nor shall we go upon him, nor shall we send upon him, except by a legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Note first the broad terms of clause 29: that enabled it to apply not just to the issues at hand but to varied future situations. Second, notice that only “freemen” were protected. The barons came to realize, however, that if their rights were to be maintained against the king, they would need the cooperation of all classes. Thus, the charter came in time to protect “common” liberties.

Each of those issues has informed the American experience. First, Magna Carta itself inspired our Founders to limit power through a written document, our Constitution. Second, clause 29 is captured in the Fifth Amendment, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. And third, Magna Carta’s capacity to grow is reflected by the post-Civil War inclusion of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. That brought the Bill of Rights to bear not only against the federal government, its original limit, but against the states as well. We owe much to this English inheritance.

Cross-posted at the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily.