By Benjamin Welton

As some American eggheads say, there could not have been 1787 without 1215. The legacy of Philadelphia starts at Runnymede. Put more bluntly, the U.S. Constitution would not exist without the Magna Carta that was signed by King John of England.

America’s political culture, ideals, and most of its founding stock come from the British Isles. As such, arguing that American documents have an English lineage is entirely sensible. America’s Bill of Rights is based on and not much different from the Bill of Rights that English Protestants ratified in 1689 following the Glorious Revolution.

There a few documents in the world that receive such undue reverence as the Magna Carta. Conservative MP Daniel Hannan has called the signing of the document a “secular miracle”, the logic being that it was the Magna Carta that enshrined limited government in the English, then British soul. Hannan and others sincerely believe that the 1215 document is the root and origin of modern Anglo governance, with its protection of individual freedom, liberties, etc. Let us show that this is bunk.

Historical Context

The Magna Carta, which can be read in translation here, was signed by a king so loathed that no subsequent English monarch took his name. Although King John‘s story has been colored over the centuries by writers who hated him, it is true that John was a tyrant and a bumbler who lost most of the Angevin holdings in France to King Philip II of the House of Capet. Even worse, insofar as the Anglo-Norman barons of England were concerned, John was not the legitimate king because he ruled in the stead of the brave Richard the Lion-heart, who spent years languishing in an Austrian jail.

Beginning in 1215, the same year that John affixed his emblem to the Magna Carta, the Anglo-Norman barons of England’s north and east rose up in rebellion. Their main grievances were over John’s misrule in England and Normandy as well as his steep taxes that were raised in order to fight new campaigns in France. This rebellion would become known as the First Barons’ War, an unnecessary conflict that further weakened the monarchy in England.

The Magna Carta had already been signed by the time the war broke out, so it neither prevented the war nor ended it. In fact, haggling over the Magna Carta following its signing led both parties to be dissatisfied with the document, ultimately putting all on a war footing. The “secular miracle” was ineffectual insofar as internal English politics were concerned. The main reason for this is that King John had the document annulled not long after signing it by a decree from Pope Innocent III. The Pope and the King agreed that the document had been signed under coercion. The Pope even went further by excommunicating those barons who had forced John’s hand. Even in its own time, the Magna Carta meant nothing to either the English monarch or the barons who fought him.

The Document Itself

Those who claim that the Magna Carta is the origin of Anglo-American freedom often point to one line in particular:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

This passage is often cited as the foundation of the notion that all governments should be held to the rule of law. This is a strange assertion, given that no English or British court case has been decided based on either this passage or the Magna Carta generally, and that the Romans had a legacy of protecting legal authority long prior. The Magna Carta is therefore of no legal importance. It is merely a symbolic gesture that signals the king’s willingness to compromise on his authority. When the English sovereign faced a much greater revolt in the 17th century, many Parliamentarians echoed the work of barrister Sir Edward Coke, who often invoked the Magna Carta during his injunctions against outlawry, unlawful arrests, and other formerly common practices of medieval (and Catholic) England.

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