Today is the 800th birthday of Magna Carta

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 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.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

via Magna Carta.

Today is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta – the Great Charter of British liberties – by King John of England.

Britons and Americans historically have seen this as the beginning of the concept of the rule of law—the idea that anyone, no matter how powerful, is above obedience to the law, and no-one, no matter how powerless, is below the protection of the law.

These ideas are embedded in the United States Constitution in Section One, Article 9, which guarantees the right of habeas corpus, and forbids bills of attainder and ex post facto laws.

The right of habeas corpus means that a person cannot be imprisoned unless charged with violation of a specific law, and told which laws he or she is accused of breaking.

The forbidding of bills of attainder means that the government is forbidden to pass a law aimed at one specific person or family.  The forbidding of ex post facto laws means the government is forbidden to pass a law making something illegal after the fact.

What these mean is that under the written American Constitution, as under the unwritten British constitution, individuals should be safe from harm, no matter how much they displease the rulers or displease public opinion, so long as they refrain from violating the written laws.

This concept was considered so fundamental that it was incorporated into the Constitution before there was a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of worship, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and other basic rights.

It also is the basis of the idea of “due process of law” in the Fourth Amendment, which protects the people against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids state governments to arbitrarily deprive anyone of life, liberty or property.

The idea of Magna Carta ought to be remembered and honored by the people of the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries in the British legal tradition.  Liberty under law will only exist so long as people are willing to defend it.

Now it is perfectly true that the rights guaranteed under Magna Carta when it was signed applied only to “free men”—that is, to nobility, clergy and free yeomen, not to serfs or to women.  It is just as true that the rights guaranteed the U.S. Constitution when it was ratified applied only to white people.  They were the only people at the time who were in a position to fight for their rights.

King John reluctantly signs the Magna Carta

King John reluctantly signs Magna Carta

But the idea of liberty under law was too powerful an idea to be limited to one small group.  The power of the idea, and not the historical circumstances under which it arose, are what is important.

Nowadays we are reverting to absolutist government.  President George W. Bush claimed the right to imprison and torture people based on his determination that they might be terrorists.  President Barack Obama claims the right to kill people based on his determination that they might be terrorists.

To say that the protection of the law does not extend to people with Muslim heritage, brown skins and non-European names is the same as saying the law does not extend to serfs or to slaves.   When a precedent is set by withdrawing protection of the law from one small group of people, the liberties of everyone are in danger.


Magna Carta: an introduction by Claire Breeay and Julian Harrison for the British Library.

The Magna Carta Myth by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker.

The Great Charter: Its Fate, Our Fate by Noam Chomsky, a lecture at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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