Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

King John of England (right) and an English baron agreeing to Magna Carta

King John of England (right) and an English baron agreeing to Magna Carta. A detail from the bronze doors of the U.S. Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C.

Credit: Image courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.

—Magna Carta (1225)

The "Great Charter" drawn up on the field at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 between King John and his feudal barons failed to resolve the crisis that had been brewing in England ever since the death of John's brother King Richard I. Over the long term, however, Magna Carta served to lay the foundation for the evolution of parliamentary government and subsequent declarations of rights in Great Britain and the United States. In attempting to establish checks on the king's powers, this document asserted the right of "due process" of law. By the end of the 13th century, it provided the basis for the idea of a "higher law," one that could not be altered either by executive mandate or legislative acts. This concept, embraced by the leaders of the American Revolution, is embedded in the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution and enforced by the Supreme Court.

Guiding Questions

  • In what respects did Magna Carta provide the justification for American independence from Great Britain?
  • To what extent did the principles and provisions of the Great Charter find expression in the U.S. Constitution?

Learning Objectives

On completion of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain what is meant by the rule of law and why it is necessary in a free and democratic society.
  • Explain what is meant by higher law and the relationship between Magna Carta and the evolution of constitutional government.
  • Describe the role of Magna Carta in shaping the thinking of American colonists and explain how this document was used to justify independence from Great Britain.
  • Define the concept of due process of law, list the constitutional provisions that guarantee due process, and explain their importance in assuring a just society.

Background

At the death of his brother, Richard the Lionhearted, John assumed the throne of England, intent on exercising power to achieve his own selfish ends. To fund military campaigns in France, he extracted exorbitant fees from nobles, who, in turn, raised the rents imposed on their tenants. At the same time, John reduced the lords' customary powers over those tenants, restricting, for example, their power to hold court for those living on their feudal lands. He attempted to influence church elections and confiscated church properties, alienating the powerful ecclesiastical establishment and depriving the poor of the only source of relief available to paupers. He restricted trading privileges traditionally granted to London's merchants and increased their taxes, alienating this constituency as well.

King John's tyrannical practices extended to demanding sexual favors from the wives and daughters of his barons and to imposing brutal punishments on individuals who challenged his authority. His unbridled exercise of power, coupled with the fact that his administration was both corrupt and inefficient, ultimately led the feudal lords to challenge his authority. Rebellion against the king's rule surfaced in 1213, when England's nobles refused to support him in yet another war in France. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, sided with them. As animosity mounted, the barons grew more determined to reclaim their rights and in early May 1215 renounced their allegiance to the king. Initially, John refused to meet with them, but he changed his mind when London's merchants opened the gates of the city to the nobles, demonstrating that they, too, were prepared to challenge the king's authoritarian rule. Threatened with a violent overthrow, John had little choice but to meet with the barons and agree to the terms they presented at Runnymede. The original draft was replaced four days later with a slightly amended version that extended rights to freemen (about 10% of the population at that time) as well as nobles. That official version, though sealed by the king, was annulled on August 24, 1215 by Pope Innocent II, who threatened the barons with excommunication if they attempted to enforce it.

The Great Charter agreed to by King John was part of a movement in both England and Western Europe to restrict the powers of the monarch and assert the rights of the politically influential, i.e. the nobles. The Magna Carta laid the foundation for government based on the rule of law in Great Britain. By the end of the 13th century, England had a representative parliament and had come to recognize Magna Carta as a "higher law." The first step toward the growing importance of this document was taken by John's son and successor, Henry III. The new king's regents—Henry was only nine when he inherited the throne—re-issued the charter in 1216 and 1217 in an effort to win support for the young monarch. Henry himself issued it again in 1225 when he took personal control of the country. All three re-issues contained changes, including omission of the clauses in the original that had provided for enforcement of the agreement by a council of barons. The 1225 version is considered the final version.

 Although English monarchs continued to abuse their powers, they also came to recognize the need for baronial support. Henry III instituted the practice of bringing his knights together to obtain approval for new taxes. This meeting, known as "parliamentum," had become customary by 1254. A decade later, membership had expanded to include representatives from cities and boroughs, and by the end of the century, members of the commons and inferior clergy were invited to participate. Despite the fact that groups within English society had gained a voice in financial decision making, powerful barons continued to protest against expensive foreign wars, the failure of the king to respect established laws and customs, and infringement of basic liberties. A turning point came in 1297 when King Edward I, known as the English Justinian, agreed to the Charter of Confirmation. This document established parliament as a truly representative body by requiring common consent to all tax measures, and it enhanced the importance of Magna Carta by declaring all judgments contrary to this document to be null and void. Recognition of Magna Carta as a higher law ultimately served as precedent for the assertion that the United States Constitution is the "supreme law of the land" and for judicial power to declare statutes unconstitutional.

Magna Carta took on greater significance in the 17th century as a result of the weight given to this charter by Edward Coke (pronounced "cook"), one of the leading legal scholars of that century. In 1610, in what is known as Bonham's Case, Coke reiterated the claim that the Great Charter represented a higher law. James Otis would cite Bonham's Case in his attack on the Stamp Act over 150 years later. Thomas Paine would cite the principle in Common Sense, as would leading colonists in their attacks on British rule.

In the meantime, colonial charters issued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as well as political treatises published by the Commonwealthmen—English libertarians whose radical views influenced the thinking of Enlightenment thinkers in America—reinforced the significance of Magna Carta. Not surprisingly, fundamental rights cited in the Great Charter—habeas corpus and due process of law—found their way into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as well as virtually every state constitution.

Throughout American history, the rights associated with Magna Carta have been regarded as among the most important guarantees of freedom and fairness. However, these rights have not always been applied equally. Discrimination based on racial and ethnic differences has, for example, resulted in unfair practices. Perceived threats to national security have been used to justify withholding certain rights or have influenced the enforcement of constitutional guarantees. Despite or, in some cases, because of these shortfalls, the fundamental principles have remained very much a part of the American experience, finding expression in judicial decisions, legislation, news reports and editorials, as well as in the thinking of informed individuals.

This lesson is designed to show the evolution of fundamental concepts of liberty that had their beginnings in Magna Carta. These ideas not only shaped the institutions and political ideology of England, but they were also transplanted to the American colonies where they were accepted, refined, and embedded in the instruments of government as well as the thinking of the American people.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents (available as the PDF files listed on the left sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources") you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • These PDF files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in each activity, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Annotated abridged and unabridged versions of Magna Carta are available.
Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more of the following preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills.

Overview of Activities

This lesson spans several centuries and two continents. Activity 1 focuses on the document itself and, therefore, deals exclusively with English history in the 13th century. This lesson provides abridged and unabridged annotated versions of Magna Carta.

In addition to providing background for the settlement of the English colonies in North America and the American Revolution, this activity can also be used in courses focusing on British history, the history of Western Europe, and world history.

Activity 2 traces the evolution of Magna Carta in the 17th and 18th centuries. It explores the contributions of Edward Coke, the transplanting of English ideas relating to rights and liberties to the American colonies, and the reliance on these ideas by leaders of the American Revolution. This activity works well in both English and U.S. history courses.

Activity 3 examines the legacy of Magna Carta and, in particular, its influence on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It can be used in U.S. history and U.S. government /civics courses.

Read carefully the background information for this lesson and, if time permits, additional discussions regarding Magna Carta that appear on the web.

The National Archives website, reviewed by EDSITEment, offers two essays:

Another discussion of Magna Carta, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Medieval Sourcebook, provides valuable background information while placing the document within the context of its time. This can be found at Medieval England.

Because the term due process is critical to this lesson, you might wish to read the comments of Justice Felix Frankfurter, included in his concurring opinion in the case of Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath (1951). He wrote:

The requirement of "due process" is not a fair-weather or timid assurance. It must be respected in periods of calm and in times of trouble; it protects aliens as well as citizens. But "due process," unlike some legal rules, is not a technical conception with a fixed content unrelated to time, place and circumstances. Expressing as it does in its ultimate analysis respect enforced by law for that feeling of just treatment which has been evolved through centuries of Anglo-American constitutional history and civilization, "due process" cannot be imprisoned within the treacherous limits of any formula. Representing a profound attitude of fairness between man and man, and more particularly between the individual and government, "due process" is compounded of history, reason, the past course of decisions, and stout confidence in the strength of the democratic faith which we profess. Due process is not a mechanical instrument. It is not a yardstick. It is a process. It is a delicate process of adjustment inescapably involving the exercise of judgment by those whom the Constitution entrusted with the unfolding of the process. [341 U.S. 123, 162-163]

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction to Magna Carta

This activity has three parts.

The language used in Magna Carta is difficult to understand. For that reason, the teacher should take an active role in helping students decipher the meaning of the "chapters" dealing with fundamental rights and liberties.

A. Students should read a brief description of Magna Carta available at Want to know the facts about Magna Carta? through the EDSITEment-reviewed website of The British Academy Portal.

Students do not need to understand all the details of the charter. Those dealing with the feudal relationships, for example, are of limited interest at this time. However, students should be able to identify provisions that relate to four key themes:

  • Rule of law
  • Fairness of the law
  • Due process of law
  • Economic rights

Student exercises and links are provided in a Student LaunchPad and chart for locating provisions related to the four themes.

The teacher might begin by listing the four major themes on the board. S/he should then "walk" the students through the document, helping them as needed to recognize relevant passages. The outline, given below, can serve as a guide for the teacher in this process. If the teacher wishes to work from a detailed annotation, this can be found on the PDF, as noted above.

  • Rule of law
    • Powers and privileges of the king are clearly defined and limited
    • Charter provides for enforcement of restrictions placed on the king
  • Fairness of the laws and their execution
    • "Reasonable" rules and regulations
    • Equal justice under the law
    • Recognition of customs, traditions, and established rights
    • Restoration of property and fines if not justly taken
    • Punishment in proportion to the crime
  • Commitment to "due process of law"
    • Established procedures
    • No trial without evidence/testimony to support accusations
    • Reliance on local courts and magistrates
    • Trials held in a timely manner
    • Trials open to the public
    • Trial by a jury of one's peers
  • Respect for economic rights
    • Right to property
    • Fairness in economic transactions—standard weights and measures
    • Reimbursement for and/or restoration of property
    • Freedom for merchants to move in order to conduct business

Students do not need to find every relevant passage. The idea is to acquaint them with the document and to give them an opportunity to find evidence to support each of the four major themes.

Note: An abridged version of Magna Carta, with annotations, is also available as a PDF. This version focuses primarily on the provisions for due process of law.

B. Leave 15-20 minutes toward the end of the class to discuss the major themes found in Magna Carta. The discussion should:

  • Clarify terms such as rule of law and due process of law (Please see the annotated version for discussions of these terms.)
  • Focus on the importance of each of the four themes to individual rights and liberties

C. Conclude with a short explanation of Confirmatio Cartarum (1297) in which Edward I re-affirmed his commitment to Magna Carta. Refer the students to paragraph 2, which elevates the Great Charter to the status of "higher law" by declaring that all laws contrary to Magna Carta are null and void. This document can be found on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Activity 2. The Evolution of Magna Carta

For homework, students should read the essay: "The Rhetoric of Rights: Americans are 'Englishmen' and Englishmen Have Constitutional Rights," which appears on the EDSITEment-reviewed website E Pluribus Unum. Students can access the essay link in this Student LaunchPad for Activity 2. The following questions are included for students to guide their reading:

  • What does John Allen mean when he states that the king is "as much under a law…as the people are under the oath of allegiance to him"? What basic concept of government is indicated by this assertion?
  • Colonists claimed that the colonial charters, such as those of Virginia and Massachusetts, guaranteed them the rights granted in Magna Carta. Explain their reasoning. What evidence do we have that the king believed that the American colonists had a legitimate claim to the rights of Englishmen?
  • What was the basic argument used by Coke to challenge the powers of King James I? In what respects was his argument based on Magna Carta? Of what relevance were Coke's ideas to the Americans in the period leading up to the Revolution?
  • What evidence is presented in this essay of the importance of Magna Carta to the American colonists who challenged King George III?
  • Were the references to Magna Carta made by patriot leaders correct? Defend your answer.
  • Based on the use of Magna Carta by the American Revolutionary leaders, what do we learn about the significance of this document and how its meaning had changed over time?

In class, students should be placed in small groups where they can share their responses to the above questions. They should be given about half the class period to discuss and refine their answers. During the second half of the period, the class as a whole should draft a generalization in response to the last question. This should take the form of a single statement, carefully crafted, that could be used as a thesis for a short essay.

Activity 3. The Influence of Magna Carta on the U.S. Constitution

The Constitution required that nine of the existing states ratify the document. New York was a critical state in this process, but support for the new government was in question. With the exception of Alexander Hamilton, New York's delegates had walked out of the Philadelphia convention, and key politicians in the state continued to express their opposition. Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, published a series of newspaper articles under the title of The Federalist arguing for ratification of the Constitution. One of the last essays, #84, was written by Hamilton in response to the charges that individual rights would not be protected. This document is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project. Students should read the first eight paragraphs of #84, paying particular attention to paragraph four, in which Hamilton cites the provisions included in the body of the Constitution that guarantee individual rights.

Working together, students can use the Magna Carta and U.S. Constitution chart provided as a PDF.

  • In the first column, they should list the provisions in Magna Carta that guarantee due process of law.
  • In the second column, they should list the provisions in the Constitution cited by Hamilton in Federalist #84.
  • In the third column, they should list the provisions of the "Bill of Rights" added to the Constitution in 1791, focusing primarily on Amendments 5-8.

When the chart is complete, they should study the results and then discuss whether the evidence supports Hamilton's claim that the new Constitution provided adequate protections for individual liberties without a Bill of Rights. Was Hamilton correct that a government created by the people, as he asserts in paragraph 8, eliminated the need for charters of liberties?

Assessment

Students should write a position paper in response to the following question:

    Which were more important to the Americans who declared their independence from Great Britain and established the framework for the new government: the principles that had their origin in Magna Carta or the specific provisions that guaranteed individual rights and liberties?

The response, 2-3 pages in length, should begin with a clear statement of the student's position (no hedging…the student must take a clear position and defend it) and should be supported by both evidence and logic.

Alternatively, the assessment could take the form of a class debate. RESOLVED: Magna Carta's main legacy lies in the principles it espoused, rather than in specific protections of rights and liberties.

Extending The Lesson

Both the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment guarantee "due process of law;" however, numerous questions arise with regard to each of the specific provisions. The EDSITEment-reviewed website Exploring Constitutional Law, raises questions and cites cases that have attempted to answer some of those questions. Two links are particularly relevant to this lesson, and each offers background, links to pertinent cases, and questions to raise in class discussions:

Selected EDSITEment Web Sites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Christine L. Compston (Bellingham, WA)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media