If you find yourself in Boston between now and September 1, I would urge you to make your way to the Museum of Fine Arts. Until then it will be the home of one of four surviving copies of Magna Carta, also known as the Great Charter. The exhibit is titled, “Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty.”
Next year will mark the 800th anniversary of when a group of English Barons compelled King John to accept their demands on the shore of the River Thames at Runnymede. In a time when we overuse the word “historical,” the acceptance of Magna Carta is one of most significant historical moments in human history.
Before Magna Carta, the King was answerable only to God. For all intents and purposes, the word of the King was the word of God. Magna Carta is simultaneously both a radical and a conservative document. It is radical in that it challenged the Divine Right of Kings, but conservative in that did not challenge the existence of the British monarchy. After all, the provisions of Magna Carta were intended to protect the interests of the Barons, not the Serfs in their employ. More than five centuries would pass before the Jeffersonian principle of all men being created equal came into vogue. Nevertheless, for the first time, there was a set of provisions documenting what the King could not do to his subjects on his whim. This would plant the seeds of the American Revolution. With Magna Carta came the difficult birth of both individual liberty and limited government.
This is actually the second time I’ve seen a copy of Magna Carta (which is written in Latin). The first took place nearly 20 years ago in the winter of 1995 when I spent a semester in London as a parliamentary intern in the British House of Commons. Magna Carta is housed at the British Library and it stands near the handwritten lyrics of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
I had forgotten just how small the script of Magna Carta is. I’m sure after King John opened up the seal he said to himself, “I can’t bloody read what they’ve written.” For the benefit of museum patrons, a few of Magna Carta’s 63 clauses were written in typeface on the wall beside the document itself. Here is Clause 36:
In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and not refused.
My roommate Christopher Kain turned to me and said, “I suppose it was their way of saying it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.”
Other clauses address matters of trade, conservation, and the standardization of weights and measures, the administration of justice and property rights and religious liberty. I noticed that Clause 39 was highlighted in bold:
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.
Not bad for 1215 when life was, as Hobbes would put it, “nasty, brutish and short.” Of course, no man-made document is perfect. Two of its clauses single out Jews in the matter of money lending. It provides that if man owing money to Jews dies before the debt has been paid that his widow and heirs are not required to pay interest on said loan. These two clauses were rendered moot 75 years later when King Edward I expelled all Jews from England. It would be more than 350 years before Jews were allowed back into England by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. No doubt it was clauses such as this that made Cromwell refer to the document as the “Magna Farta.” For some Magna Carta was insufficient as progress was painfully slow. Centuries of civil wars and bloodshed would follow before the Britain we recognize came to be.
Yet despite its shortcomings, the good outweighs the bad where it concerns Magna Carta. The same can be said of our own Constitution. Magna Carta has served as a source of inspiration for centuries, which puts it in the company of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. It was a source of inspiration to Samuel Adams. Better known these days as a brewer than a revolutionary, in 1765 Adams wrote the Charter of Massachusetts Bay was to the people of Boston what Magna Carta was to the people of Britain. A large portrait of Adams stands to the right of the exhibit. Nearly 250 years after Adams’ praise, Magna Carta remains a source of inspiration for current day Tea Party activists.
So what of Magna Carta in the age of Obama? Whether concerning Obamacare, immigration or military involvement in Libya, with a pen in one hand and a phone in the other, Obama has governed as if he were answerable only to God. As someone who proclaimed he could calm the oceans there is little doubt that Obama believes his interventions to be divine. But God is forever and the age of Almighty Obama ends in less than two and half years. Of course there is no indication he will change his manner of governance, doing a great deal of damage in the process. Disasters both natural and man-made may soon come to be known as an Act of Obama.
Yet Obama or no Obama, liberty and limited government are fragile even in the best of times. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” So long as mankind is fallible, men will abuse the power that is granted to them. Men have denied people the right to vote by the color of their skin, interning people in times of war because of their nationality, used eminent domain for private gain or imprisoned filmmakers and blamed them for violence against Americans. Government will always overstep its bounds and even our best efforts as free people isn’t always enough to stop them. But life isn’t fair. We win some and we lose more. Some might say it ought not to be necessary to fight for the freedom we already have. But when we stop fighting for our liberties we will surely lose them.
In his latest film, Dinesh D’Souza asks us to imagine what the world would be like without America. This might very well have come to pass had King John not been compelled to accept the terms of Magna Carta almost 800 years ago. Perhaps D’Souza’s next film will be titled Magna Carta: Imagine The World Without Her. In other words, if there is no Magna Carta then there is no America.