This year, June 19 will be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.
The chief significance of the document is that it established that nobody, not even the King, is above the law.
In England until then, and in all other kingdoms, the monarch was the law. One man (or woman) had total power over every other person in the realm. The monarch was the only free individual.
The Magna Carta also curbed the power of authorities throughout the land, bringing the first protection of individuals from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment – not all individuals, only the barons whose rebellion against King John had brought him to make concessions to them. In so doing, it paved the way for habeas corpus, which ensures early and open trial for everyone who is taken into custody, though it only became law centuries later in 1679.
The idea that people could live in an ordered society ruled not by a person but by the rule of law, had been conceived and put into practice by the ancient Greeks in their city-states, and in pre-imperial Rome, but had been lost to Europe through the long dark Christian centuries. It meant that peoples of different origins, from nations and tribes of varying customs and traditions, could live together as fellow citizens. It did not matter what country they came from, as long as they would obey the same laws. Or as it has often been put: ius not rus (law not land). It was an idea that made monarchs essentially redundant.
And it was the idea that underlay the creation of the Republic of the United States of America.
And continued to influence American constitutional law.
We quote the first paragraph of an essay by H. D. Hazeltine: The Influence of Magna Carta on American Constitutional Development (1917).
For seven [now eight] centuries Magna Carta has exerted a powerful influence upon constitutional and legal development. During the first four centuries after 1215 this influence was confined to England and the British Isles. With the growth of the British Empire during the last three hundred years, the principles of the Charter have spread to many of the political communities which have derived their constitutional and legal systems from England, and which have owed in the past, or which still owe, allegiance to the mother-country. The earliest, and perhaps the most important phase of this imperial history of Magna Carta is its effect upon the constitutions and laws of the American colonies and of the Federal Union that was established after their War of Independence.
The essay concludes:
The history of Magna Carta in America has a meaning far deeper than the influence of a single constitutional document; for Magna Carta typifies those ideals of law and government which have spread to America and to many other political communities that lie beyond the four seas encircling the island-realm itself. The world-wide diffusion of those ideals of liberty and justice deserves to be studied in its entirety, as a vast historical process which had its beginnings far back in the middle ages, and which has shaped and is still shaping in modern times the institutions of all the political commonwealths that owe their spiritual inheritance to England. The history of the Charter’s influence upon American constitutional development, as one phase of that vaster process, should be illuminating alike to subjects of the Crown and citizens of the Republic. Above all it teaches them that English political and legal ideals lie at the basis of much that is best in American institutions. Those ideals, jealously preserved and guarded by Americans throughout their whole history, still form the vital force in political thought and activity within the Union. As the Americans adapt their institutions to the ever-changing conditions of national and international life, those ideals of liberty and justice, founded upon the Great Charter, will continue to inspire and guide them. The Charter has a future as well as a past in the American commonwealth, for its spirit is inherent in the aspirations of the race.
We can interpret “the race” to mean “the human race” – even if that was not exactly what Mr. Hazeltine himself meant by it.
But are the ideals of liberty and justice still continuing to inspire and guide the people of the United States of America?
Tragically, there are now many reasons to doubt it. At present America has a leader, Barack Obama, who manifests no acceptance of the idea that the law is above him. An attorney general, Eric Holder, has blatantly refused to apply the law equally to people of different ethnicities. Individuals protected by the administration have acted in the interests of the ruling party (Lois Lerner of the IRS – see here and here) or in their own interest (Hillary Clinton – see here), arrogantly defying the law with impunity.
It would take much more than a great document now to restore the Union to the republic of its founders’ intentions.