“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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.”
“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
These are just some of the agreed upon clauses included in the original Magna Carta of 1215, a document often credited as democracy’s cornerstone.
The Magna Carta
The Magna Carta was signed between King John of England and rebel barons in 1215 at Runnymede. Its clauses prevented unreasonable taxation, guaranteed the right to fair trial, ensured property rights as well as other privileges, protections, and powers for barons. Although the charter was meant to cause peace, it couldn’t stop the English civil war from erupting. While it failed as a peace treaty, the document has been cited by many to be the founding of modern democracy.
King John was not a well-liked king. His barons’ primary complaint was the king’s heavy taxation and the harsh punishments that awaited them if they refused to pay. In January of 1215, the barons had attempted to have King John hear their grievances and address them, but King John effectively ignored them by appealing to Pope Innocent III. Seeing as the king was a papal vassal, he could rely on the Pope to favor his side as both parties told their cases via letter to this “impartial” judge. It wasn’t until June of 1215, when the rebel cause gained more numbers and truly militarized, that they could force the king’s hand.
While the original document is just one long unnumbered list, it’s since been broken down into 63 separate clauses.
The Magna Carta largely failed in its original purpose as a peace treaty. Some have cited clause 61 for its failure. This clause established a council of twenty-five barons to review the king’s actions, and if they found them unlawful, to remove him from power until amends were made. Other scholars point out that King John likely never intended to obey the charter anyways, citing the Pope’s speedy declaration of the document’s invalidity.
However, the Magna Carta had success at securing more rights for more people. It was reissued several times by future kings, such as King John’s son, Henry III. The document received several slight changes in each reinstatement until it was later made part of English law.
While some of the clauses of the Magna Carta sound quite liberal, it’s important to note that it only gave rights and powers to a handful of elites. The only free men in England were barons - the average man was a peasant, a slave to their masters. Thus, the right to a fair trial, security of possessions, etc. were only rights guaranteed to barons.
The Magna Carta is often credited as the basis for democracy. That title is well-earned but should be taken with a grain of salt. The revolt against King John was not the first time (even in England) that a king’s divine right to rule was questioned. Rulers were expected to often follow the will of their more powerful and wealthy followers, or else face rejection. The real importance of the Magna Carta was that this unspoken rule, the ability of the people to overrule the word of the mighty, was explicitly stated in a document.
Furthermore, the Magna Carta’s influence can be found in other great, historic documents. The United States Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights all contain the Magna Carta’s core value. One very old document stated the importance of human value, and it’s been expanded upon ever since.
If nothing else, the Magna Carta serves as a reminder that however powerful someone may be, they are not above the law. Power comes from the consent of the governed: lose that consent and there is no more power.