Magna Carta and the contemporary presidency.

Author:Pfiffner, James P.
Position:The Contemporary Presidency - Essay

Eight hundred years after King John affixed his seal on an agreement with his rebellious barons (it was not called Magna Carta then) the Great Charter is celebrated as the classic embodiment of the fundamental principles of rule of law, limited government, and individual rights. Despite this reverence, scholars have pointed out that much of the mythology regarding Magna Carta is not historically accurate (Holt 1992, 9; Lepore 2015; Radin 1947). Rather than being in effect "in perpetuity," it was in legal effect for only ten weeks (Breay 2002, 40). It was intended to bring peace, but it quickly resulted in civil war. Rather than a statement of justice for all, it was meant to serve the purposes of the aristocracy of England in the thirteenth century. It did not authoritatively bind the English Kings of the Tudor or Stuart dynasties (Carpenter 2015, 435). Most of its sixty-three clauses concerned archaic details about inheritance and specific taxes, and the British Parliament has repealed all but four of its articles. It was not even translated into English until 1300, having been written in Latin and quickly translated into the vernacular, which in 1215 was French (Lepore 2015).

Although these assertions may be historically accurate, they are beside the point. Historical events have an impact according to the significance attributed to them in future years. Over the past 800 years, Magna Carta has formed the basis and inspiration for historic statements of English liberties and limited government, and its legacy heavily affected the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. This article will first examine the historical circumstances surrounding the agreement at Runnymede of June 15, 1215. It will then examine the influence of Magna Carta in fighting Stuart absolutism in the seventeenth century. Finally, it will argue that the timeless principles embedded in Magna Carta continue to be relevant to contemporary governments, particularly the U.S. presidency. (1)

Historical Context of Magna Carta

The original purpose of Magna Carta was not to assert individual rights, but rather to curb what was seen as the despotism of King John. Specifically, Magna Carta concerned feudal prerogatives of the king and his relationship with the barons of his kingdom. John's need for money to conduct his wars in France led to the abuses of traditional taxes collected by English kings (Carpenter 2015, 70, 202). John inherited the Angevin empire, including significant portions of France, but he was not successful militarily in defending them. In 1204 he lost Normandy, and in 1214 he lost the rest of the Angevin holdings in Europe at the battle of Bouvines. The most powerful barons in England had chafed under John's often arbitrary and capricious rule, particularly his continuing demands for more money to regain lost territories on the continent.

In the fall of 1214 the complaints of the barons came to a head and they confronted John, demanding that he grant them rights dating back to the coronation charter of Henry I and the promises of Edward the Confessor before him (Vincent 2012, 11). They particularly objected to the scutage (payments in lieu of military service) he demanded to support a return to France to reclaim his empire. They did not object in principle to scutage, amercements, fines and other demands for taxes, but John had increased the amounts significantly without consulting them, and his demands were administered arbitrarily and coercively.

When John saw dissent becoming serious, he hired mercenaries to supplement the minority of barons who remained loyal to him and began to fortify castles. In the spring of 1215 the objecting barons gathered together to take up arms and oppose John, and in May they renounced their fealty to him. This amounted to treason and the threat of civil war. On May 17, they captured London, a serious blow to John's sovereignty. Because the military force that the barons put together was formidable, John decided to negotiate and met them at Runnymede in June. They drew up their demands in the Articles of the Barons, which were the basis for Magna Carta. The threat of violence convinced John to have his seal affixed to the formal documents of Magna Carta of 1215 (about thirteen copies) that were to be distributed throughout the kingdom.

John, however, had no intention of adhering to the demands of the barons, and he was confident that the agreement would be nullified by Pope Innocent III. In April 1213 John had reconciled his dispute with the pope over the appointment of the archbishop of Canterbury and pledged fealty to the pope in exchange for a payment of 1,000 marks annually. Thus, legally, the pope was the overlord of England as well as the spiritual head of the church (Breay 2002, 20). Predictably, immediately after sealing Magna Carta, John sent a plea to the pope to nullify the agreement, which Innocent did, pronouncing in a Papal Bull that the charter was "null, and void of all validity for ever" (Carpenter 2015, 400). Thus, Magna Carta was formally in legal effect for only ten weeks, and war broke out in September 1215.

Aside from the formal legality of Magna Carta, neither side to the agreement kept its promises (Carpenter 2015, 403; Holt 1992, 359). In September 1215 King John and his loyalists moved militarily against the barons to seize their lands, but the barons would not give up London or lay down their arms and agree to support John. Once the fighting began, the barons, not recognizing the legitimacy of King John, invited Prince Louis of France to replace John as king and swore fealty to the Frenchman who invaded England in May of 1216 in order to join the barons and depose John.

In October of 1216 John died, leaving his son, Henry III, as his nine-year-old heir. William Marshall, a loyalist to John, acted as regent, running the country in the young king's place until he reached majority. Marshall acted quickly to make peace with the barons, who had grown tired of the arbitrary actions of the French troops who had come to help them overthrow John. At the end of 1216, Marshall drew up a modified charter that satisfied the rebelling barons, ending the civil war and reuniting his kingdom. Henry again reissued Magna Carta, with significant changes from the 1215 original, in 1217 and 1225.

Provisions of Magna Carta

In their original demands, the rebelling barons sought to curtail the monarchy, not to assert a broad range of human rights. They objected to what they saw as the unprecedented taxes and constraints that John had imposed on them. The 1215 Magna Carta had sixty-three clauses (or chapters), though the Latin text of the actual document was not separated into discrete sections; the separate clauses were assigned numbers by the great jurist Sir William Blackstone in 1759.

Most provisions concerned feudal relationships between the king and his subjects such as inheritance, marriage, debt collection, fines, use of forests, property, and King John's abuses of these relationships (Palalitto 2015, 4; Carpenter 2-15, 124). For instance, a number of clauses forbade the king from using his power to interfere with the inheritance of property. (2) A number of other clauses forbade the seizure of property by the king without due process of law and just compensation. (3) Other clauses demanded freedom of commerce through unrestricted travel by merchants, the standardization of weights and measures, and the free navigation of rivers (removal of fish weirs from the Thames and Midway) (Mount 2015, 16). Prior to Magna Carta, the king determined what constituted justice; King John used the courts as a source of revenue, and he would "sell" justice to the highest bidder (Holt 1992, 326). He assessed scutage or aids that were significantly greater than traditional payments to the king. (4)

In addition to the articles concerning specific acts of John, several of the sixty-three clauses of Magna Carta addressed issues of fundamental justice and the rule of law in England; they constitute the primary heritage of Magna Carta:

Chapter 38 declared, "In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it." Chapter 39 proclaimed, "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we [King John] proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land." Chapter 40 promised, "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." These declarations speak to the principles of justice and the prevention of arbitrary rule by the king or sovereign, and they indicate the injustices of which King John was accused. Magna Carta foreshadowed the expansion of liberty and the reining in of arbitrary rule. The seeds of due process and rule of law lie in "law of the land" and "credible witnesses." In interpreting Magna Carta, in 1354 the words "due process of law" appeared in English statutes for the first time (Holt 1992, 10; Howard 1964, 15). Parliament interpreted "the lawful judgement of his equals" to mean "trial by peers or trial by jury" (Holt 1992, 10). Chapters 12 and 14 forbade the assessment of "aid" or "scutage" without "general consent of the realm," foreshadowing the principle that taxes cannot be raised without the consent of Parliament, though Parliament did not exist at that time.

Expansion of Rights and Limits on Government

Although most of the intentions of the barons in forcing John to agree to Magna Carta concerned their narrow self-interest, over the next several centuries, the Great Charter was used in later assertions of limited government and individual rights. As the scholar J. C. Holt argued, "The history of the document is a history of repeated reinterpretation.... The class and political interests...

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