On a bright summer day 800 years ago, a momentous scene unfolded in the Runneymede meadow along the River Thames, about 20 miles west of London. England’s King John met rebel barons to sign Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter).
John, a red bearded wretch of a man, nodded agreement to the barons’ demands — anything to appease them. He stamped his royal seal firmly in wax and galloped back to Windsor Castle on horseback. He had inherited a costly war with France, narrowly avoided national excommunication and yearned to stave off the rebel barons of his realm, who hated his tax increases and affairs with noble wives.
John reneged on Magna Carta, but freedom’s floodgates had opened, and Magna Carta’s ideas endured. With Magna Carta, the rule of law was born, and rulers reigned under law, even King John. Magna Carta spoke of local concerns and majestic ideas — religious freedom, marriage and inheritance, travel rights, trial by jury, habeas corpus, no taxation without representation and due process.
These principles infused the British common law and America’s laws and ideals. Magna Carta stands as a pillar of Britain’s unwritten constitution and our shared laws and culture. Magna Carta lies at the heart of our republic’s justice, equality, dignity, liberty, freedom, respect and other cherished values: Americans have discussed, fought, and died for these values we all hold dear.
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Magna Carta’s legacy for Americans is due process and the rule of law, in clause 39: “No free man (shall be imprisoned) … save by a lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” Due process means a person’s freedom cannot be taken except by a trial by a jury of her peers. Magna Carta also gives us a rich heritage of religious liberty and no taxation without representation.
America’s founders saw Magna Carta as part of liberty’s inheritance for all generations. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are peppered with Magna Carta ideas. America was born in ideas sown in Magna Carta.
The American founders’ resolute pen echoed Magna Carta’s clarion call, as liberty overcame tyranny to birth a new world. An American philanthropist recently bought a copy of Magna Carta at auction, now on permanent display at the National Archives. This summer, Queen Elizabeth II and many others paid tribute to Magna Carta at Runneymede — a 1957 American Bar Association monument stood nearby, celebrating our shared inheritance.
Kansas City lies an ocean away from England, but Magna Carta is part of our fabric. Its threads are woven into America’s rich tapestry. Like America’s founding documents, the Kansas and Missouri constitutions are filled with Magna Carta’s ideas. The courts affirm Magna Carta’s ideals of liberty and justice, our inheritance as Americans across generations.
In Kansas City, the Jackson County Courthouse’s south wall quotes Deuteronomy 1.16, and separately reminds every Kansas Citian of Magna Carta: “Justice, liberty, equality, and opportunity — upon these pillars rest the genius of our state and our republic.”
The rule of law is vital in our time. We see the ongoing clash of ideas over Supreme Court decisions on religious liberty or same-sex marriage but we agree to live under the rule of law. Magna Carta’s legacy is the rule of law in Western civilization.
Steve Johnson is an attorney in Kansas City and a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, a patriotic lineage group. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in history from Kansas State University and earned his law degree at the University of Kansas. He welcomes correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @fountainpenlaw.