Sunday, July 9, 2017
Excuse a somewhat off-topic post. Just before the fourth of July, I visited Lincoln in the United Kingdom. At the castle, the Magna Carta was on exhibit. Of course, as the person who teaches Comparative Law: The English Legal System at my law school, I had to see the exhibition.
As most of you know, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta was in 2015. For those of you a bit rusty on your English history, here is a thumbnail sketch. The landowning barons were angry at King John because he was throwing them in jail for no reason, taxing them for his wars continuously, and denying their rights as freemen. After joining together against the king, the barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta to put limits on the king's powers and reassert the rights of freemen. (Note that freemen did not include John and Jane Public; it was all about the rights of the powerful landed class.)
There are four remaining copies of the document. Four? Copies had to be made for the king, the barons, some officials, and every bishop's city throughout the land. The Magna Carta had to be meticulously copied onto parchment by monks so that it could be couriered to all regions of the kingdom to provide notice of the agreement. In fact that copying would have taken weeks or longer to accomplish.
It turns out that King John reneged on the agreement three weeks after he signed, so all of the copies may have never been delivered. However, Lincoln Cathedral had received its copy. After John's death (within the year as I recall), his young son reaffirmed the agreement, upon the encouragement of his close advisors, to appease the barons. Thus, began the limitations on monarchical powers that came to a head (pun intended) with the execution of Charles I.
Ultimately the American colonies refused to be taxed without representation and fought for freedom. Our own documents of founding reflect the earlier struggles for the rights of freemen. Hopefully in the aftermath of the July 4th holiday, we remember the importance of the rule of law in protecting those rights. (Amy Jarmon)