The Deafening Silence: Magna Carta At 800
Today, June 15, 2015, marks an astonishing, almost inconceivable anniversary: 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, at Runnymede, and with it the foundational idea that there are limits upon the power of the sovereign. That our rulers must not be above the law.
Apart from Biblical matters, commemorating events so far in the past is unknown to us. Within the lifetimes of a good part of the US population, we’ve seen a bicentennial (1976, Declaration of Independence), quadricentennial (2007, founding of Virginia), and quincentennial (1992, Columbus’s landing).
Does anyone care? In what passes for right, center, and left on the debased landscape that is the American media, there was scarcely a mention. The websites of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC each ignored the anniversary. All the New York Times website could manage was an op-ed by Tom Ginsburg scolding us to “stop revering Magna Carta.”Magna Carta is three centuries older than the oldest of those! Its age beggars the imagination.
Stop revering it! What an idea! Just who is doing the revering, when the silence on the 800th anniversary is almost deafening.
(Credit where credit is due: National Review and The Nation, at least, have given the anniversary some of the serious attention it deserves. But from what this writer could tell from checking on a dozen mass media sites, the anniversary has passed almost entirely unnoted and unnoticed.)
What is the document about? Strictly speaking, it was a peace treaty between English nobles in revolt against arbitrary royal power, and the monarch, John (“Bad King John,” to countless generations of English schoolchildren, in contrast with “Good Queen Bess”).
After their victory at Runnymede, the rebels forced John to sign a declaration of rights and liberties the king would be bound to respect.
Written in Latin, the Magna Charta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties) contained 63 articles, most famously the 39th:
“No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” The 40th article is often cited as well: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”
The “freemen” referred to were, of course, English barons. Still, in that localized conflict in A.D. 1215 between two groups of the privileged, is the germ of constitutional law, the model of due process, and the ultimate source of our Bill of Rights. Magna Carta establishes the bedrock principle that no one—not even the sovereign—is above the law.
It contains a great deal more, including the remarkable 61st article, establishing a committee of 25 barons charged with seeing to the faithful observance of the entire charter, and authorized to petition for redress—even to rise up against the king should sufficient remedy not be obtained. And a closely related (and almost entirely neglected) document, The Charter of the Forest (1217) recognizes the rights of ordinary people to a share in the commons, that is to resources essential to economic survival (at that time, such resources as access to water in streams, to wood for fuel, to forage for their animals).
History shows us that the rights fought for at Runnymede, and whose recognition was wrested from King John on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, would have to be fought for over and over again. Magna Carta may be immortal—a document and a human achievement for the ages—but the powerful have not accorded its principles perpetual respect. Other people at later times, and even in other places, have asserted them anew and sometimes they have won: the English Bill of Rights culminated one such struggle (1689); on these shores, the Declaration of Independence(1776) and the Bill of Rights (1789) announced and culminated (respectively) another. And in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Eleanor Roosevelt and others consciously looked to Magna Carta for inspiration.
Why today’s near-total silence over Magna Carta? In the US, the groundwork has been laid for a state of exception by reason of a “war” vaguely defined, against no specific enemy, and of quasi-perpetual duration. A Republican president launched, and his Democratic successor has deepened, the practice of perpetual imprisonment without charge, and even of summary execution, as legitimate presidential powers. Could it be that Magna Carta has become an embarrassment? Or that its name troubles the conscience of at least some of our leaders?
Magna Carta’s anniversary should be remembered, and its significance debated. It should be a moment for genuine questioning of the exercise of power in a constitutional republic, for an honest stock-taking of what is left of the ancestral liberties that the people must not allow to slip away out of some combination of apathy, distractedness, ignorance, and fear.
Let Magna Carta be honored, let Magna Carta be defended. Let it be criticized, let it be scorned as obsolete by those who see it that way. Remembered, studied, debated, … anything but ignored.