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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. Clause 39 

The “Lincoln” Magna Carta

History has been kind to King John. He is a fixture in US history textbooks. His image is carved into a ceiling frieze and molded into the brass doors of the US Supreme Court. The story of Magna Carta’s impact on the development of  US law is being told at the Library of Congress exhibit “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” which opened in November to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. at Runnymede. The exhibit will close on January 19th.

A Self-Serving King Acting in ” Bad Faith”Instead of being a noble visionary, King John was a bad king who faced a revolt of his barons for excessive taxation. The road from Runnymede in 1215 to Philadelphia in 1776 is a spectacular and improbable illustration of “the law of unintended consequences” “writ large” (pun intended). With something akin to a “sword to his head” King John signed a document  enumerating a series of concessions to the barons (which he intended to revoke at the first opportunity). For the first time, a king had made himself subject to the law, not above the law. It became the foundational document which protects common law country citizens around the world from the excesses of government.

Nearly Forgotten It  was nearly forgotten by the English until 17th century jurist Sir Edward Coke wrote his treatise the Institutes of the Laws of England.  The Coke treatise ended up in private  law book collections  in the former colonies  of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and inspired the thoughts and writings of the American Founding Fathers. Coke’s examination of Magna Carta supported the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Magna Carta specifically inspired:

  • No taxation without representation
  • Freedom of religion
  • Right to a speedy trial
  • The establishment of an independent judiciary
  • Due Process
  • The Jury system
  • Writ of Mandamus
  • The US system of checks and balances

12 things you probably didn’t know about Magna Carta:

  • The document should be refered to as “Magna Carta” not as “The Magna Carta.”
  • Only 4 of the original 44 copies of Magna Carta are known to be in existence
  • The Works of Shakespeare do not include any references to Magna Carta
  • George Washington was a descendant of King John
  • The Magna Carta was put on display in the Magna Carta Pavilion at the 1939  New York World’s Fair in order to strengthen ties with the US  as Britain faced threats from Nazi Germany. 
  • It was almost blown up in 1940 when a time bomb was left inside the Pavilion.  2 NYC policemen were killed when the bomb exploded after being removed from the Pavilion.
  • It was stored in Fort Knox for the remainder for WWII until it was safe to return it to the UK.
  • In the UK only 3 of the original clauses are still law.
  • Clause 39 became Article 1 of the US Constitution
  • Clause 61 inspired the US system of checks and balances in government.
  • The US Supreme Court has cited Magna Carta more than 80 times in the past 50 years.
  • Although the document originally focused on the grievances of the barons, the charter outlined the rights of “free men” rather than limiting the rights to the barons. The rights of “free men” created the opening for these same rights to be extended to all British and US citizens.

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor

Thomson Reuters and the Library of Congress have published  a book called Magna Carta Muse and Mentor edited by Judge Randy Holland. The book includes chapters from leading US and British scholars and jurists including US Chief Justice John Roberts, Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Law Librarian of Congress David Mao, Black’s Law Dictionary editor/legal writing expert Bryan Garner and others.

 Upcoming Magna Carta Events:

January 14, 2015 Magna Carta Lecture Series: Magna Carta—Women in Medieval Europe in 1215. The Law Library welcomes Dr. Ruth M. Karras, chair of the History Department at the University of Minnesota, for this program. The program will take place at 1:00 p.m. in the Mumford Room (LM-649).
January 14, 2015 – Gallery Talk, Nathan Dorn, exhibition curator, will discuss highlights of selected items from the exhibition. The program will take place in the South Gallery, second floor, Thomas Jefferson Building from 12:00 p.m. until 1:00 p.m.
January 16, 2015 – Gallery Talk, Heather Wanser, preservation conservator, will discuss the conservation of George Washington’s copy of the U.S. Constitution which is displayed in the “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” exhibition. The program will take place in the South Gallery, second floor, Thomas Jefferson Building from 12:00 p.m. until 1:00 p.m.
January 19, 2015 – Gallery Talk, Chris Woods, director of the National Conservation Service (United Kingdom) discusses the care and conservation of Magna Cartas, including the Lincoln Cathedral 1215 manuscript copy on exhibition. The program will take place in the South Gallery, second floor, Thomas Jefferson Building from 10:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m.

The Exhibit closes January 19th.  Well done all!