Importance of the Magna Carta to the US Constitution

Parchment Replica the Magna Carta of King John
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The Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter,” is one of the most influential political documents ever written: it is seen by many modern political scientists as the fundamental document for many of the governing laws of the west, including the United States. Originally issued in 1215 by King John of England as a way of dealing with his own political crisis, the Magna Carta was the first governmental decree establishing the principle that all people—including the king—were equally subject to the law. 

Key Document in U.S. Political Foundations

In particular, the Magna Carta had a significant impact on the American Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the constitutions of various U.S. states. Its influence is also reflected in the beliefs held by eighteenth-century Americans that the Magna Carta affirmed their rights against oppressive rulers.

In keeping with colonial Americans' general distrust of sovereign authority, most early state constitutions included declarations of rights retained by individual citizens and lists of protections of those citizens from the powers of the state government. Due in part to this conviction to individual liberty first embodied in the Magna Carta, the newly-formed United States also adopted the Bill of Rights.

The American Bill of Rights

Several of the natural rights and legal protections enumerated in both the state declarations of rights and the United States Bill of Rights descend from rights protected by Magna Carta. A few of these include:

  • Freedom from unlawful searches and seizures
  • The right to a speedy trial
  • A right to a jury trial in both criminal and civil cases
  • Protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law

The exact phrase from the 1215 Magna Carta referring to “due process of law” is in Latin, but there are various translations. The British Library translation reads:

“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.”

In addition, many broader constitutional principles and doctrines have their roots in America’s eighteenth-century interpretation of the Magna Carta, such as the theory of representative government, the idea of a supreme law, a government based on a clear separation of powers, and the doctrine of judicial review of legislative and executive acts.

Journal of the Continental Congress

Evidence of the influence of the Magna Carta on the American system of government can be found in several key documents, including the Journal of the Continental Congress, which is the official record kept of the Congress's deliberations between May 10, 1775, and March 2, 1789. In September and October 1774, the delegates to the first Continental Congress drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, in which the colonists demanded the same liberties guaranteed to them under “the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts.”

They demanded self-government, freedom from taxation without representation, the right to a trial by a jury of their own countrymen, and their enjoyment of “life, liberty, and property” free from interference from the English crown.

The Federalist Papers

Written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, and published anonymously between October 1787 and May 1788, the Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five articles intended to build support for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the widespread adoption of declarations of individual rights in state constitutions, several members of the Constitutional Convention generally opposed adding a bill of rights to the federal Constitution.

In Federalist No. 84, published during the summer of 1788, Hamilton argued against the inclusion of a bill of rights, stating: “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.” In the end, however, the Anti-Federalists prevailed and the Bill of Rights—based largely on the Magna Carta—was appended to the Constitution in order to secure its final ratification by the states.

The Bill of Rights as Proposed

As originally proposed to Congress in 1791, there were twelve amendments to the constitution. These were strongly influenced by the state of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776, which in turn incorporated a number of the protections of the Magna Carta.

As a ratified document, the Bill of Rights included five articles directly reflecting these protections:

  • Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures (4th), 
  • Protection of rights to life, liberty, and property (5th), 
  • Rights of accused persons in criminal cases (6th), 
  • Rights in civil cases (7th), and 
  • Other rights kept by the people (8th). 

History of the Magna Carta

King John I (also known as John Lackland, 1166–1216) ruled England, Ireland and sometimes Wales and Scotland between 1177–1216. His predecessor and brother Richard I had spent much of the kingdom's wealth on the crusades: and in 1200, John himself had lost lands in Normandy, ending the Andevin Empire. In 1209, after an argument with Pope Innocent III over who should be the archbishop of Canterbury, John was excommunicated from the church.

John needed to pay money to get back in Pope's good graces, and he wanted to wage war and get back his lands in Normandy, so as sovereigns were wont to do, he increased already-heavy taxes on his subjects. The English barons fought back, forcing a meeting with the king at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215. At this meeting, King John was coerced into signing the Great Charter which protected some of their basic rights against royal actions.

After some modifications, the charter known as the magna carta libertatum ("great charter of liberties") became part of the law of the land of England in 1297 under the reign of Edward I.  

Key Provisions of the Magna Carta

Following are some of the key items that were included in the 1215 version of the Magna Carta:

  • Habeas corpus, known as the right to due process, said that free men could only be imprisoned and punished after lawful judgment by a jury of their peers.
  • Justice could not be sold, denied, or delayed.
  • Civil lawsuits did not have to be held in the king's court.
  • The Common Council had to approve the amount of money that vassals had to pay instead of having to serve in the military (called scutage) along with any aid that could be requested from them with only three exceptions, but in all cases, the aid had to be reasonable. This basically meant that John could no longer tax without the agreement of his Council.
  • If the King wanted to call the Common Council, he had to give the barons, church officials, landowners, sheriffs, and bailiffs 40 days notice that included a stated purpose for why it was being called.
  • For commoners, all fines had to be reasonable so that their livelihood could not be taken away. Further, any offense that a commoner was said to have committed had to be sworn to by "good men from the neighborhood."
  • Bailiffs and constables could not appropriate people's possessions.
  • London and other cities were given the right to collect customs.
  • The king could not have a mercenary army. In feudalism, the barons were the army. If the king had his own army, he would have the power to do what he wanted against the barons.
  • Inheritances were guaranteed to individuals with the amount of what today we would call inheritance tax being set in advance.
  • As stated previously, the king himself had to follow the law of the land.

Up until the Magna Carta’s creation, British monarchs enjoyed supreme rule. With the Magna Carta, the king, for the first time, was not allowed to be above the law. Instead, he had to respect the rule of law and not abuse his position of power.

Location of Documents Today

There are four known copies of the Magna Carta in existence today. In 2009, all four copies were granted UN World Heritage status. Of these, two are located at the British Library, one is at Lincoln Cathedral, and the last is at Salisbury Cathedral.

Official copies of the Magna Carta were reissued in later years. Four were issued in 1297 which King Edward I of England affixed with a wax seal. One of these is currently located in the United States. Conservation efforts were recently completed to help preserve this key document. It can be seen at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., along with the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. 

Updated by Robert Longley

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