March 04, 2015
Magna Carta lit the way
I add my comments on this article below it -- JR
For many, the Magna Carta is a beacon of liberty, protecting us from the arbitrary tyranny of our governments, even today.
Lord Denning, the celebrated English judge, once called the ancient peace treaty between King John and his barons - which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year - "the greatest constitutional document of all time."
But how are those 800-year-old pieces of English calfskin still relevant to us?
After all, most of the charter was not filled with the sweeping rhetoric that we have come to expect of important political documents, but spoke of debtor's sureties, scutage, socage, burkage, paying money for castleward, and removing fish weirs from the Thames.
As a peace treaty, it lasted less than six weeks, ushering in a two-year civil war that devastated England, led to an attempted French invasion, and ended with King John dead, a 9-year-old boy on the throne, and the English significantly poorer, after paying off the French king to leave them alone.
Why then do we celebrate it?
Because the Magna Carta has come to stand for more than its provisions. Its impact has reverberated through the centuries.
No, it did not bring about democratic government in England. No, it did not end the venality of the English Crown. No, it did not guarantee trial by jury.
But it was cited by Henry VIII's Catholic opponents in the sixteenth century, by Sir Edward Coke, and other opponents of the grasping Stuart monarchy, in the seventeenth century, by the American Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century, and so on.
These reverberations are important.
Remembering the whole story of the Magna Carta might encourage us to play our own part in fostering liberty with greater humility. Rome was not built in a day, nor the rule of law established with one international human rights convention, or a UN General Assembly Resolution.
It's great to hear the bits of history that are not usually mentioned. And it is good to see that someone has actually read the document.
But the comments above go a bit too far in negativity. For instance, the first provision of the document was very similar to America' treasured First Amendment -- though not as concisely expressed. The MC could be said to contain the very first First Amendment. And it was first by a long way.
And the writer above complains that the MC is mainly concerned with minor matters like laws of inheritance. It is. It could be said in fact to be England's first systematic law of intestacy. And that is important to many people. If someone close to you has died without leaving a will, you will know all about that.
And America's revered Declaration of Independence is also mainly concerned with minor details, as anyone who has actually read it will know. People remember the few grand bits and ignore the rest. Much the same can be asked of the MC.
There is also in it a lot about setting up courts of justice and specifying the rules they are to follow. And the rules are surprisingly humane -- nothing like the atrocities Muslims perform in the name of justice to this day.
And how modern is this clause? "There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly"
I could go on but I think there is much to admire in the MC and I very much urge people to read it for themselves. There is a modern English translation here
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