Magna Carta (Latin, great charter), one of the enduring symbols of LIMITED GOVERNMENT and of the RULE OF LAW, was forced upon an unwilling King John by rebellious barons in June of 1215. Since his accession in 1199, John had made enemies at every quarter. The barons resisted heavy taxation exacted to support the king's expensive and unsuccessful wars with the French. Lesser folk complained that royal officials requisitioned, often without payment, food, timber, horses, and carts. Justice in the courts became more sporadic. Quarreling with Pope Innocent III over the election of a new archbishop of Canterbury, John seized church properties, yielding only when the pope threatened to release the English people from their allegiance to the Crown.
By spring of 1215, the barons' discontent had ripened to the point that they formally renounced their allegiance after the king refused their demands that he confirm their liberties by a charter. Under severe pressure, John agreed to meet the barons at Runnymede. There the barons presented a list of demands, the Articles of the Barons, which were then reduced to the form of a charter?the document that later generations came to call Magna Carta.
The charter to which John agreed is an intensely practical document. Rather than being a philosophical tract redolent with lofty generalities, the charter was drafted to provide concrete remedies for specific abuses. Moreover, although the barons were rebelling against the abuse of royal power, they were not seeking to remake the fabric of feudal society. They sought instead to restore customary limits on the power of the Crown, distinguishing between rule according to law and rule by the imposition of arbitrary will.
The barons' interests were essentially selfish. They did not see themselves as disinterested advocates for the common good of the realm. Nevertheless, because the abuses of John's reign touched so many elements of English society, his opponents' demands had implications far beyond the barons' own interests. For example, the charter begins with the declaration that the liberties therein guaranteed run to "all the free men of our kingdom."
Many of Magna Carta's provisions concern feudal relationships having no counterpart in modern times. Certain of the charter's decrees, however, raise issues as vital now as then. Indeed, some of its provisions anticipate rights now embedded in American constitutional law. Among the more...