Happy Magna Carta Day from Bill Glahn
Wednesday, June 15th, marks Magna Carta Day. It has been796 years since that day in 1215 when the seal of King John of Englandwas affixed to the Great Charter of Liberties.
The importance of the document to Western Civilization and the fate ofthe English-speaking peoples cannot be overstated. It established, in writing,the essential principle that no person, not even the ruling monarch, was abovethe law. In addition, it established that under the same rule of law,individuals had rights.
I recently finished reading A BriefHistory of The Magna Carta: The Story of the Origins of Liberty (RunningPress, 2008), by Geoffrey Hindley. Although our modern republic bears littleresemblance to the feudal society of medieval England, it is amazing how littleour political concerns have changed. Issues surrounding the relationshipbetween the individual and the state, as well as concerns over property rights,taxation, and the administration of justice, are as important today as theywere in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
On anecdote that Hindley includes in his book jumped out as being veryrelevant to our current situation. In 1209, the town of Maidford was seized by the King over thedeath (probably by natural causes) of a deer in a nearby royal huntingpreserve. Today, such arbitrary and collective punishment of a community overthe natural demise of a local woodland creature does not seem so farfetched ifyou simply substitute “Endangered Species Act” for “Law ofthe Forest”.
True, Magna Carta did not establish a Parliament. That innovationwould take several more decades. Also, it is not clear how far below thebaronial classes these hard won rights extended. But it is hard to imagine howwe would have had a functioning democracy or a robust legal system if it werenot for the events in that meadow in Runnymedenearly eight centuries ago.