Magna Carta Celebrates 800 Years

RUNNYMEDE -- 800 years ago today, 3,500 words of Medieval Latin were crammed illegibly onto a single page of parchment, and forever changed the course of history.

Magna Carta, presented by 40 indignant English barons to their treacherous king in the 13th century, has endured ever since as the world’s first and best declaration of the rule of law, a thrilling instance of a people’s limiting a ruler’s power by demanding rights for themselves.

Magna Carta — it means Great Charter in Latin — is treated with a reverence bordering on worship by many legislators, scholars and judges. It is considered the basis for many of the principles that form the U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And as a measure of how exciting an old piece of paper can be, in 2007 the billionaire David M. Rubenstein paid $21.3 million to buy a (somewhat later) version of it, and then put it on permanent loan to the National Archives. Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network have visited this displayed work.

This morning, an extravagant ceremony will be observed in the meadow where King John of England capitulated to the barons’ demands and affixed his royal seal to the original document all those years ago.

The event will feature, among other things, a group of 500 American lawyers traveling with the American Bar Association, a host of England’s foremost jurists and scholars and — as a sign of how far monarchs have come since medieval times — Queen Elizabeth II.

“The events of 800 years ago marked the commencement of a major undertaking in human history,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in a recent address. The renowned English judge Lord Denning called Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

No Big Deal

Amid all the celebrating, the years of planning, of conferences, exhibits, speeches, papers, symposia and encomia extolling Magna Carta, there are some legal scholars who believe that the charter is actually not such a big deal. Our adulation of it, they say, comes from what we believe it to have been in hindsight — not what it was at the time.

According to this argument, even the notion that Magna Carta established many of Western democracies’ most dearly held rights, like the right to trial by jury and the right not to be imprisoned arbitrarily by the state, is a misreading of history.

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. Moreover, the phrases limiting Jewish collection of debt were particularly onerous.

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.

Revered by Americans

Americans tend to revere Magna Carta somewhat more than the English, who still have a monarchy and do not have a written constitution.

Sometimes this can lead to absurd extremes. Several years ago, for instance, Republicans in the New Hampshire legislature proposed a bill that would have required any new legislation dealing with individual rights or liberties to include “a direct quote from the Magna Carta” (it died in committee).

But as a sign of Magna Carta’s enduring relevance, a provision of the charter holding that, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice,” was cited last month in a Supreme Court decision on judicial integrity.

Upholding a Florida law that forbids judges to solicit campaign contributions, Chief Justice Roberts cited the relevant passage and wrote: “This principle dates back at least eight centuries to Magna Carta.”