Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrating the 800th Birthday of the Rule of Law

We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.
—Magna Carta (final version, 1225)

We celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta this week, and it somehow seems appropriate that this commemoration comes in the same week that annual National History Day finals is held at the University of Maryland at College Park.

EDSITEment’s lesson Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution is designed to show the evolution of fundamental concepts of liberty that had their beginnings in the field at Runnymeade. These ideas not only shaped the institutions and political ideology of England, 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.

Magna Carta in England

The "Great Charter," drawn up on the field at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, between King John and his feudal barons, may have failed to resolve the crisis that had been brewing in England ever since the death of John's brother King Richard I; but over the long term, 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.

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."

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. 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 that 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.

Magna Carta in America

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, debates, and editorials, as well as in the thinking of informed citizens.