Today marks an important anniversary; and exactly two years from today, we will reach an extraordinary chronological milestone: 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta.
Apart from Biblical matters, the commemorations of such ancient events is unknown to us. We’ve seen a bicentennial (1976, Declaration of Independence), quadricentennial (2007, founding of Virginia), and quincentennial (1992, Columbus’s landing).
The barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 were fighting for what they saw as their rights and prerogatives as noblemen. They could not have known that the document would become immortal, serving over the centuries as a touchstone in the struggle for human liberty and constitutional government.
Magna Carta is three centuries older than the oldest of these!
Does anyone care? We should. To do otherwise is to toss part of our birthright on the trash-heap.
What is the document about? Strictly speaking, it was a peace treaty between English nobles in revolt against arbitrary royal power, and the monarch, John (“Bad King John,” to countless generations of English schoolchildren, in contrast with “Good Queen Bess”).
After their victory at Runnymede, the rebels forced John to sign a declaration of rights and liberties the king would be bound to respect.
Written in Latin, the Magna Charta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties) contained 63 articles, most famously the 39th:
“No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” The 40th article is often cited as well: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”
The “freemen” referred to were, of course, English barons. Still, in that localized conflict in A.D. 1215 between two groups of the privileged, is the germ of constitutional law, the model of due process and the ultimate source of our Bill of Rights. Magna Carta establishes the bedrock principle that no one—not even the sovereign—is above the law.
It contains a great deal more, including the remarkable 61st article, establishing a committee of 25 barons charged with seeing to the faithful observance of the entire charter, and authorized to petition for redress—even to rise up against the king should sufficient remedy not be obtained. And a closely related (and almost entirely neglected) document, The Charter of the Forest (1217) recognizes the rights of ordinary people to a share in the commons, that is to resources essential to economic survival (at that time, such resources as access to water in streams, to wood for fuel, to forage for their animals).
History shows us that the rights fought for at Runnymede, and whose recognition was wrested from King John on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, would have to be fought for over and over again. Magna Carta may be immortal—a document and a human achievement for the ages—but the powerful have not accorded its principles perpetual respect. Other people at later times, and even in other places, have asserted them anew and sometimes they have won: the English Bill of Rights culminated one such struggle (1689); on these shores, the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Bill of Rights (1789) announced and culminated (respectively) another. And in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Eleanor Roosevelt and others consciously looked to Magna Carta for inspiration.
When the eight hundredth anniversary comes round, will Magna Carta be widely published? And the rest of the charter? Indeed, will the milestone even be noted? A survey of websites today on both what passes for Left and Right in US politics shows no mention of the anniversary.
Most crucially, will we debate whether the rights enshrined in Magna Carta still stand? In the US, the groundwork has been laid for a state of exception by reason of a “war” vaguely defined, against no specific enemy, and of quasi-perpetual duration. A Republican president launched, and his Democratic successor has deepened, the practice of perpetual imprisonment without charge, and even of summary execution, as legitimate presidential powers.
Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary is likely to be an occasion for empty grandiloquence. What it can and should be, rather, is a moment for genuine questioning of the exercise of power in a constitutional republic, for an honest stock-taking of what is left of the ancestral liberties that the people must not allow to slip away out of some combination of apathy, distractedness, ignorance, and fear.
Copyright © 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. An earlier version of this essay was originally written for the June 16-22, 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the bilingual column, A Mi Modo de Ver/The Way I See It. Pablo Julián Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (inglés>español) and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (inglés<>español) who also provides custom-designed cultural/linguistic coaching and training. He holds the Doctorate in History from The Johns Hopkins University.