On the day we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, leave it to the New York Times to feature a boxed op-ed on its editorial pages entitled “Stop Revering Magna Carta.” As the only bow to the occasion on those pages, one imagines that the editors could not be bothered even to write a house editorial on the subject
The piece is written by one Tom Ginsburg, professor of international law and political science at the University of Chicago, an institution with which I have some acquaintance. As suggested by its title, this is a work of deconstruction. The Charter’s fame, you see, “rests on several myths.” Indeed, “like the Holy Grail,” Ginsburg concludes, “the myth of Magna Carta seems to matter more than the reality.” And well it should. After all, history rarely springs forth in principled perfection. At best it grows one fractured event at a time, each event gradually becoming the narrative mythology of a people.
Ginsburg begins his deconstruction by claiming that Magna Carta “wasn’t effective. In fact, it was a failure.” How so? Because King John repudiated the Charter shortly after he’d signed it, whereupon the barons sought to replace him, which he avoided by dying. But the next year, we’re told, John’s young son reissued the document. Far from a failure, then, it was reissued several more times over the 13th century, culminating in the important 1297 version. Indeed, it was at that time, as the famed legal historian Edward S. Corwin wrote, well before the era of deconstruction, that the king was forced to call Parliament into existence to relieve his financial necessities. But Parliament’s subventions “were not to be had for the asking,” Corwin noted, “but were conditioned on the monarch’s pledge to maintain Magna Carta.” A failure? Hardly.
Yet another myth, Ginsburg writes, “is that the document was a ringing endorsement of liberty.” As evidence, he cites three of the Charter’s 61 chapters, each concerning matters peculiar to the time—for example, the removal of fish traps from the Thames. Yet as shown by Ginsburg’s colleague at the law school across the Midway, Professor Richard Helmholz, even that provision served in time to afford a basis for free navigation.
And therein lies the major fault of this piece. It’s a textbook example of missing the forest for the trees. To be sure, as Ginsburg writes, “Magna Carta was a result of an intra-elite struggle, in which the nobles were chiefly concerned with their own privileges.” But again, that’s how history often begins, sowing the seeds for future advances. As Corwin observed nearly a century ago, many of the Charter’s clauses were drawn in ways that did not confine their application to issues immediately at hand. Moreover, the barons realized early on that to maintain the Charter against the king, they had to get the cooperation of all classes and so too the participation of all classes in its benefits. Thus did the scope of its protections expand, much as with our own Constitution. And that’s why so many revere Magna Carta today.