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 impactful documents ever written. 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. 

Seen by many political scientists as the founding document for modern western constitutional government, 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. To a large degree, its influence is 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 and immunities 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.

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:

The exact phrase from the Magna Carta referring to “due process of law” reads: “No man of what state or condition he be, shall be put out of his lands or tenements nor taken nor disinherited, nor put to death, without he be brought to answer by due process of law.”

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.

Today, evidence of the influence of the Magna Carta on the American system of government can be found in several key documents.

Journal of the Continental Congress

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. At the bottom of this document, the delegates cite the “Magna Carta” as a source.

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 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, 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

The first twelve, rather than ten, amendments to the Constitution originally proposed by Congress in 1791were strongly influenced by the state of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776, which incorporated a number of the protections of the Magna Carta. The fourth through eighth articles of the Bill of Rights as ratified most directly reflect these protections, ensuring speedy trials by juries, proportionate humane punishment, and due process of law.

Creating the Magna Carta

In 1215, King John was on the British throne. After a falling out with the Pope over who should be the archbishop of Canterbury was excommunicated.

In order to get back in the Pope's good graces, he was required to pay money to the Pope. Further, King John desired to lands he had lost in present-day France. In order to pay the fees and wage war, King John imposed heavy taxes on his subjects. The English barons fought back, forcing a meeting with the King at Runnymede near Windsor. At this meeting, King John was coerced into signing the Charter which protected some of their basic rights against royal actions.

Key Provisions of the Magna Carta

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

  • Habeas Corpus or the right to due process was first written down in the Charter. It only allowed free men to be imprisoned and punished upon 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 with 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 possessions.
  • London and other cities were given the right to collect customs.
  • The king would not be allowed to 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 was placed under the law of the land.

Up until the Magna Carta’s creation, 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