It’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, causing thoughtful Americans who care deeply about scutage, darrein presentment, or the standard width of haberject, to raise their voices in loud acclamation.
The rest of us, however, are left wondering: What does it matter that one June day in 1215 at Runnymede in Merrie Olde England, King John affixed his signature to a document that effectively summed up the political and religious disaster his 17-year reign had become?
John’s troubles began several years before with a series of diplomatic defeats, losing territory and prestige in disputes with Pope Innocent III and the king of France. Witnessing John’s international debacles, several English nobles decided to test whether he was just as incompetent a ruler at home. He was. Within months of civil war breaking out, mounting debt had crippled John and forced him to "negotiate" with his rebellious barons by mid-summer 1215.
The bulk of the Great Charter’s articles dealt with social and legal privileges benefitting nobles and "freemen" of the realm, while others ensured standard weights and measures throughout the kingdom. The barons had no interest in abolishing royal authority. Rather, they sought to preserve it by keeping it within customary limits (or by creating a council of barons that would effectively keep John from trespassing on real or perceived limits ever again).
For all the barons’ domination, theirs was but a hollow victory. First, the Pope absolved John of having to comply with his vassals’ demands, since oaths taken under duress have no legal standing. Second, while subsequent monarchs reissued the Great Charter on their accession, its terms were frequently ignored or violated.
Indeed, the Magna Carta would be completely irrelevant were it not for members of the House of Commons, who, in June 1628, used the Charter as one of several pieces of evidence in their ongoing dispute with King Charles I over the nature of royal power. They baldly asserted that they had inherited those liberties bestowed nearly 420 years ago, and thus the aforementioned limits on the king were still relevant.
Parliament’s ultimate success against the Crown in the civil wars of the 17th century kept this legacy alive and, in so doing, laid the foundation for what is known as "the Whig interpretation of history." Those who subscribe to this position triumphantly point to the Magna Carta as that stone, which John and Innocent rejected, that became the cornerstone of the British Constitution, buttressed by the Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill of Rights (1689), and established constitutional monarchy as the right-thinking form of government for all humanity—at least until some upstart Englishmen across the ocean claimed to have a better idea.
While critiquing the Whig interpretation of history is a healthy exercise, it is important to remember that the Magna Carta has provided English-speaking peoples with the foundational vocabulary of classical liberalism, even though the definitions have altered significantly.
The Magna Carta talks of rights, but these are not Lockean Natural Rights, given to individuals through the unmediated powers of their Creator. Quite the contrary, the opening articles of the Magna Carta clearly assert that rights come from God (not "the Creator") to the king who then bestows them, not to individuals, but to communities. All these communal, inherited rights come with duties attached to them. If any community failed to uphold their obligations, their freedoms would be jeopardized, and not only for themselves, but for their descendants, too.
Under this definition of rights, we are all born under a great debt to every generation of ancestors that has kept up their end of the bargain. For what price can you place upon such a gift, and how can one say "thank you" in any meaningful way to the dead? The only thing left is to live in such a way that you wouldn’t become the very ones that failed to live up to the ancestral standards. It is essential to observe here that fulfilling one’s duties was what made one free.
Nearly the same amount of time has elapsed between the Petition of Right and Magna Carta as between 1628 and 2015. Much like the legal documents of the 17th century, we too find ourselves using the language of our ancestors, although in quite different ways. Even a brief reflection on the use of "liberties" as used by these older documents will find that it runs contrary to nearly every institutional understanding of liberty in America today. We have completely altered, though not yet abolished, these old definitions. We have gotten rid of the burden of feeling indebted, and therefore being obligated, to others as a condition of our freedom, and it behooves one to ask: Have our new natural and inalienable individual rights—ours without any obligation or need to care about anyone save ourselves—made life more stable, more meaningful, more enjoyable?
So raise your glass of cider, ale, or mead, to this remarkable document and to the even more remarkable vision of English-speaking communities who for generations knew their freedoms to be conditional gifts, and who saw in sacrifice the only acceptable means of preserving them. Then go, and be thankful.
–Andrew Mitchell is an assistant professor of history at Grove City College and a contributing scholar for The Center for Vision & Values.
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