Paul Gordon Collier- On June 15th, 1215, King John of England sat at a place called Runnymede, quill in hand, surrounded by nobles. He sat before a document called the Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter.”
The Magna Carta was the fruit of a battle between King John and his Barons. A group of Barons, called the rebel barons, were pushing to roll back the power of the King which, up until this point, had been officially absolute.
The document was intended to create peace between King John and the rebel barons. It was not intended to be revolutionary, though it would prove to be the first major national example of a government that would be called to be limited by something that has come to be known as “Rule of Law.”
The document itself did not produce the peace desired. Shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, or Magna Carta Libertatum (the “Great Charter of the Liberties”), King John died. Pope Innocence III annulled the charter on the grounds that limiting the authority of the King by men, as opposed to those ordained by God to do so (such as himself), undercut God’s sovereignty in appointing the King in the first place.
The First Baron’s War happened soon after that annulment. After the war ended, in 1217, the Magna Carta was restored. The Magna Carta, however, did not become part of England’s statue law until 1297.
Why do we, 800 years later, still care about the events in Runnymede? What matter is it to us to commemorate the signing of a document that had to do with an English King and English Barons?
The Magna Carta is seen by most historians as the predecessor to our own Bill of Rights. In this document, the power of government, in the person of the King, was given restraints that were defined by the rights of others, the nobles. This idea of a governmental power being limited by the rights of others was revolutionary.
I won’t get into the long history of how the English arrived at this point. You would have to look at Greece, Rome, and even the history of governance among Germanic tribes to get a sense of how the English arrived at this point in 1215.
The Magna Carta was not a philosophical or idealistic expression, so much as it was the ‘natural’ expression of how the English thought about Law and Justice. The document was not viewed, at the time, as being so much revolutionary for the world as it was useful to solve an immediate need, to stop the civil wars in England.
In the coming centuries, England would have to come to terms with an ideal that the Magna Carta exposed and made visible to the English people. This ideal would drive the English into conflict with the old ways over and over again.
The old ways empowered government, in the person of the King, and, after the Magna Carter, in the persons of King and Parliament, to make decisions about what people should think and how they should live out those beliefs for the good of the Kingdom.
The first step had been taken, recognizing the inherent rights, the “God-Given” rights of the barons, rights that the King did not have the power to grant or deny. As the English Reformation took hold, men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale would challenge the ‘old way’, and challenge the notion that rights, given to us by our creator, are not also given to everyone, be the noble or ‘common.’
On December 15, 1791, the fulfillment of the Magna Carta took hold, but not in England. It happened on American soil with the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Unlike the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights recognized the rights of ALL individuals, rights given to us by our creator (as Jefferson articulated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence), to be the boundaries of government power.
800 years ago a revolution began for liberty, one that was not fully understood by the parties involved. Today, the fight for liberty still continues. As a matter of fact, the fight for liberty never ends for we will always have agents who seek to control others, be it for noble or selfish reasons. So too must we always have soldiers of liberty willing to re-affirm that all men and women are created equal, that they endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.