We generally acknowledge that the United States — a nation based on individual freedom, natural rights, the rule of law, separation of church and state, and popular sovereignty — was founded on three great documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
We should include a fourth. That document was signed this week (June 15) in 1215, in Runnymede, an English meadowland near London. It was called the Magna Carta — the “Great Charter” — and arguably no other document was more important to the development of English common law and ultimately our own Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Interestingly the document was signed under duress. England’s King John, the brother of the great King Richard the Lionhearted, had proved to be such an inept monarch that his own barons had revolted against him, even threatening armed rebellion if John did not agree to “sign” — actually put his seal on — a document , the Magna Carta, that spelled out clear limits to his powers.
First among those limits was John’s power regarding the Catholic Church. In signing the Magna Carta, John agreed that the church was separate from his realm and immune to his will. This was a radical break at the time because in most of Europe, certainly in Catholic France and Spain, the king’s influence on the church was considerable.
John also agreed that English law was supreme and that even he was subject to it. That meant, by extension, that every freeborn Englishman had fundamental rights that the king must respect. Those rights included a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers and the right of habeas corpus.
They also included the right to be secure in one’s home, meaning that no government official, including the king, could enter an Englishman’s home without his permission, or a warrant. “The wind and rain may enter the cottage of the most humble Englishman,” the proverb went, “but the King with all his might and majesty may not.”
Finally the Magna Carta transferred several powers from the king to Parliament. Only with Parliament’s consent could the king raise taxes or raise an army. And if the king refused to comply with these directives, Parliament — meaning “the people” — had the right to revolt and establish a new government.
To be sure, in the rest of Europe the Magna Carta was a non-starter, and the English kings that followed John mostly ignored or defied it. Indeed, not until the Glorious Revolution of 1689 did England’s Parliament emerge as the clear winner of the age-old power struggle between kings and their councils.
Still, the Magna Carta’s influence on our own government is unmistakable. Ironically, in good part we have a bad king to thank.