The 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

Widely considered to have been a watershed in the conception of political rights and the rule of law, the 800-year old Magna Carta — Latin for The Great Charter — is credited with having introduced proto-democratic principles to the United Kingdom and beyond, inspiring even the seminal U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights many centuries later. To this day, the 13th century document — drafted to make peace between rebellious nobles and their unpopular king — is subsequently revered by lawmakers, scholars, and jurists across the world (especially in the Anglosphere).

Among the many then-radical concepts Magna Carta introduced was the promise for the protection of church rights, the prohibition of illegal imprisonment of barons, the provision of formal justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Though it applied only to a very small percentage of the population — the notion of civil rights for all humans was still a long way off — for its time, limiting the arbitrary power of the monarch was a pretty big deal.

Or so the myth of Magna Carta would suggest. As The New York Times reports amid many commemorations of the document, many scholars believe the Great Charter’s legacy is overblown.

For one thing, as Jill Lepore pointed out recently in The New Yorker, the original Magna Carta in fact lived a short life and died an obscure death.

It was not seen at the time as marking a great moment in democratic history. Nobody had a chance to follow any of its provisions. Almost immediately after agreeing to it, King John prevailed on the pope to annul it. (In an instance of, perhaps, poetic justice, John died of dysentery shortly afterward.)

Also, it was a narrowly fashioned agreement between a small group of privileged people and an even-more-privileged monarch; there was no mention of regular people or of democracy as we know it.

The original Magna Carta became the basis for a number of successive agreements over the years, signed again and again by various kings, culminating in a more definitive 1297 version, one of whose copies Mr. Rubenstein bought for the National Archives.

But it was not until centuries later that Magna Carta was resurrected, reinterpreted and held up as a great symbol of the rule of law. It was invoked in the early days of the American colonies, again during the drafting of the Constitution, and countless times since.

“It’s one of the many, many things in the Anglo-American legal tradition that will eventually grow and mutate and be misinterpreted as something that’s important”, Akhil Amar, a professor at Yale Law School and author, most recently, of “The Law of the Land”, said of Magna Carta, using the historical present. He added: “Stuff happens later that endows it with a certain retrospective significance”.

On the other hand, other scholars argue that whatever its immediate impact, the Great Charter is worthy of all its continued praise and reverence. Again from The Times:

Scholars who say that the claims for Magna Carta are exaggerated, he added, are merely following academic fashion. “Among historians it’s the cool thing to say”, he said.

“It’s precisely from the capacity it’s had over this 800-year period of functioning as a rallying cry, a symbol, an ideal of the rule of the law that it’s important”, Dr. Feldman said. “No other document in world history has been able to function in so many times and places as the epitome of that ideal”.

It is also one of the few documents that fills lawyers, usually seen as a cynical lot, with almost physical excitement, both as an artifact and as a concept.

“There’s no question that it’s had a substantial and enduring impact on the development of law in the United States of America” said William C. Hubbard, president of the American Bar Association. “he idea that the law comes from the people, and it’s not the law of the king, is fundamental”.

Wherever you stand on the issue, there is no denying that deservedly or not, Magna Carta played a role in the long and often tumultuous development of civil and political rights and just governance. Whether that is through any substantive contributions, or rather through the influence of its mythical status, is apparently an open question — if it is even relevant to those millions who enjoy the fruits of this long arc of human progress.

Personally, I think that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a major European power in the 16th century, should be given more due credit for contributing greatly to the development of modern sociopolitical values. Known as the Golden Liberty, this system also applied almost exclusively to the upper-classes, yet for its time was highly unusual and forward-thinking.

An assessment from Wikipedia (well-cited in the original source) makes me wonder if Poland could have become the harbinger of the modern democratic nation-state, had it not ultimately declined and then preyed upon by its authoritarian neighbors.

The “Golden Liberty” was a unique and controversial feature of Poland’s political system. It was an exception, characterized by a strong aristocracy and a feeble king, in an age when absolutism was developing in the principal countries of Europe ― an exception, however, characterized by a striking similarity to certain modern values. At a time when most European countries were headed toward centralization, absolute monarchy and religious and dynastic warfare, the Commonwealth experimented with decentralization, confederation and federation, democracy, religious tolerance and even pacifism.

Since the Sejm usually vetoed a monarch’s plans for war, this constitutes a notable argument for the democratic peace theory. This system was a precursor of the modern concepts of broader democracy and constitutional monarchy as well as federation. The szlachta citizens of the Commonwealth praised the right of resistance, the social contract, the liberty of the individual, the principle of government by consent, the value of self-reliance ― all widespread concepts found in the modern, liberal democracies. Just as liberal democrats of the 19th and 20th century, the Polish noblemen were concerned about the power of the state. The Polish noblemen were strongly opposed to the very concept of the authoritarian state.

Perhaps the closest parallels to Poland’s ‘Noble Democracy’ can be found outside Europe altogether ― in America ― among the slave-owning aristocracy of The South, where slave-owning democrats and founding fathers of the U.S. such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington had many values in common with the reformist noblemen of the Commonwealth.

It is interesting to see how much farther back the origins of these modern concepts go. Even before Magna Carta and the Golden Liberty of Poland, one could point to other instances in which these ideals were expressed in one form or another (and to varying degrees but into practice): the Republic of Venice, the Roman Republic, Athens, Achaemenid Persia, various Indian and Chinese states; the ideas we now take for granted have always been present to some degree or another, even if it has taken a long time for them to fully emerge, much less expand to encompass more and more people (and ultimately animals).

Humans still have a long way to go of course, but it is encouraging that our species has a much longer legacy of realizing the rationale and ethics of social, economic, political, and human rights, however difficult and long-coming it has been.

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