The Magna Carta, 1215 – 2015
The American legal tradition is an English legal tradition. The United States, among many other countries around the world, inherited this tradition from its English colonial past. As such, our legal tradition has roots going back to feudal times and even before. The Magna Carta, Latin for "Great Charter," plays a foundational role in English law, and by extension, the American legal tradition as well. The not-for-profit United for Human Rights international organization calls the Magna Carta "the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today in the English speaking world."
As history, the Magna Carta had its genesis in King John's (1166 – 1216) failed attempts to retain lands in France and the harsh means by which he sought to pay for those attempts at the expense of his nobles as well as political disputes with the Church in Rome. These circumstances led to a rebellion of English Barons. The conclusion of that rebellion was King John's acceptance of the Barons' demands. In June 1215, these demands were memorialized in the document that became the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta itself contained 63 clauses. Most dealt with very specific grievances of the Barons against King John. However, one clause, clause 39, is considered to have established the principle of due process under law for all and is the direct ancestor of the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (among other documents generally). Clause 39 provides:
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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Notwithstanding affixing his Seal to the Magna Carta, King John sought to have Pope Innocent III declare it null and void. The Pope did so just a few months after the document was created. As the Barons prepared for civil war over the King's rejection of the Magna Carta's terms, King John died. His successor, Henry III (1207 – 1272), quickly reissued versions of the Magna Carta thus avoiding civil war.
Since its creation 800 years ago, the Magna Carta's 63 clauses were amended, abolished, and mostly made obsolete. While today it is largely considered a symbolic document, its influence continues to resonate. The United States Supreme Court, and many other U.S. courts, continues to reference it as an antecedent for many rights embodied in American law including the right to petition government, the appropriateness of fines and penalties, church – state controversies, and imprisonment without due process of law. In addition, the Magna Carta is considered to be the direct ancestor of numerous critical documents establishing individual rights and liberties of citizens and restrictions on the authority of their government such as: The Petition of Rights (1628); the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights; and the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
This year, the Magna Carta is celebrating its 800th anniversary. Celebrations and activities are planned throughout the United Kingdom, and those countries with English legal traditions. Through the primary efforts of the American Bar Association, activities include travelling exhibits, essay competitions, commemorative books and programs, and educational outreach.
The Magna Carta is a fascinating document which has had a very important role in the development of American law, government, and society. To learn more about it, please visit these websites:
The Magna Carta: 800 Years of the Rule of Law, Illinois Bar Journal, June 2015