The 800-Year March of Freedom

On June 15, 1215, King John II of England met with several nobles at Runnymede to sign a document that would forever alter the relationship between government and the governed.  While only a select few individuals received any rights directly from Magna Carta, the symbolism behind this agreement was profound enough to transform the course of history for the English-speaking world over the next eight centuries.

Prior to the signing of Magna Carta, an English king's rule was absolute and was not subject to any limitations whatsoever.  However, King John created a crisis in the fall of 1214 when the king attempted to invade France and suffered a spectacular defeat.  Furious at the defeat and the destruction of England's armies, the nobles enlisted the help of the archbishop of Canterbury to force the king into an agreement by which his power would be limited[1]:

Although in the final scene of the struggle the Archbishop showed himself unwilling to go to the extreme of civil war, it was he who persuaded the barons to base their demands upon respect for ancient custom and law, and who gave them some principle to fight for besides class interests. ...

In place of the King's arbitrary despotism they proposed, not the withering anarchy of feudal separatism, but a system of checks and balances which would accord the monarchy its necessary strength, but would prevent its perversion by a tyrant or fool.

From this proposal sprang the first ever written document placing specific limits on the power of a monarch, and thus the foundation was laid for all future advances in freedom.  More than any specific right, the Magna Carta retains its significance because it is the first articulation of the concept that a ruler is in some way accountable to those he ruled.

While the Magna Carta represented a great advance in human freedom, it was far from the last innovation to come out of thirteenth-century England.  Fifty years after Magna Carta, King Henry III accepted the crown of Sicily for his son in exchange for the assumption of a large amount of papal debt as well as the requirement to raise and maintain an army for the new territory.[2]  These events led to the formation of the Provisions of Westminster and the Provisions of Oxford, which dealt with "the overriding question of by whose advice and through what officials royal government should be carried on."[3]  However, soon after these additional checks on the monarchy, questions began to arise about the need to also curtail the nobility's power for the benefit of the middle classes.  This sentiment led to the rise of "The Community of the Bachelors of England," which sought to counter the power of the great barons.[4]  

In 1265, in response to these events, Simon de Montfort brought about the next great innovation in representative government: Parliament.  While the word "parliament" had existed prior to 1265, it was in this year that the first representative parliament was formed.[5]  Following in the tradition established half a century prior, rights were now extended not only to those of noble birth, but also to certain individuals without a bloodline claim to power.  Many people were still without representation; however, in these developments, one can begin to see the cause of freedom moving forward to encompass ever greater segments of society.

By the time the American colonies declared independence, the ideas of Magna Carta had been enshrined in English law for nearly 500 years; however, it took a bloody revolution to bring forth the idea that not only should rulers have to listen to the ruled, but the ruled should have the ability to choose their rulers.  Once this realization was made, the last few vestiges of non-representative government were racing against the hourglass.  Within 125 years of our independence, America had granted legal protection and the franchise to minorities through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and to women through the 19th Amendment.  While there were still many problems (which are beyond the scope of this piece) to be resolved after these amendments were passed, Americans at least had the legal basis through which true equality would eventually come.  The final great battle in the struggle for representative government, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, can be seen as yet one more attempt to realize the fundamental principle embodied by Magna Carta: that the governed have a right to protect themselves from injustice on behalf of a government that is not answerable to them.

When thinking about the freedoms we all enjoy as Americans, one must recognize the incredible contribution of those nobles who stood in a meadow at Runnymede and challenged the absolute power of a king.  For 803 years, the events set in motion that day have continued to push people to question the status quo and to ensure they receive fair and equitable treatment at the hands of their government.  Far more than any actual rights granted, the Magna Carta's importance stands the test of time as the first step in the evolution of representative government and human freedom.

John Vernon is an amateur historian, writer, and lifelong Michigan resident.  He holds degrees from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Wayne State University in Detroit.

[1] Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Vol. 1, P..253

[2] Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol. 1, P.271

[3] Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol. 1, P. 273

[4] Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol. 1, P.276

[5] Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol.1, P. 281

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