800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

This month is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (it is proper to omit the “The”), or “Great Charter,” issued in 1215 (under pressure) by King John of England. Magna Carta remains the cornerstone of the British constitution, and has echoes in the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), inter alia.

At the British Library’s site dedicated to Magna Carta, you learn that although the original document contained 63 clauses, only three remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third and most famous clause stipulates:

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 judgement 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.”

It should be noted that not all scholars revere this document. As Tom Ginsburg, Professor of International Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago recently argued, its fame rests of several myths (which he delineates), and its merits are often exaggerated. However, he explains:

Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States: It is old, it is English and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke to fit current needs. A century ago, Samuel Gompers referred to the Clayton Act as a Magna Carta for labor; more recently the National Environmental Protection Act has been called an “environmental Magna Carta.” Judges, too, cite Magna Carta with increasing frequency, in cases ranging from Paula Jones’s suit against Bill Clinton to the pleas of Guantánamo detainees. Tea Party websites regularly invoke it in the battle against Obamacare.”

You can read the entire original text (in translation) here. You can watch an animated history of Magna Carta narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones here or a video by the UK Parliament by clicking on the video window shown below.


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