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Magna Carta: Our Precedent for American Freedom

Happy 800th birthday, Magna Carta!


King John approves Magna Carta on June 15, 1215.

The U.S. government’s archives feature, among other historic items, the Magna Carta — England’s 13th century legal document sealed by King John —  setting enduring principles of liberty which were later adopted by America’s 13 British colonies and then by the newly formed United States of America. The king approved Magna Carta on June 15, 1215.

The archives in Washington, D.C. note “two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day”:

No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

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

These two paragraphs etched into British law, and later American jurisprudence, such rights as habeas corpus and trial by jury.

King John and the 30 rebellious barons who proposed the Magna Carta broke their agreement, leading to civil war. But the document kept reviving in various forms through different British monarchies and Parliaments through the centuries.

In the 17th century, it made its way to America’s shores, where the 13 colonies adhered to English common law, and eventually a new nation’s constitution. As Wikipedia, also calling upon information from federal archives, summarizes:

In the late 18th century, the United States Constitution became the supreme law of the land, recalling the manner in which Magna Carta had come to be regarded as fundamental law. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantees that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, a phrase that was derived from Magna Carta. In addition, the Constitution included a similar writ in the Suspension Clause, Article 1, Section 9: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

Each of these proclaim that no person may be imprisoned or detained without evidence that he or she committed a crime. The Ninth Amendment states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The writers of the U.S. Constitution wished to ensure that the rights they already held, such as those that they believed were provided by Magna Carta, would be preserved unless explicitly curtailed.

The Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly referenced Lord Coke‘s analysis of Magna Carta as an antecedent of the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial.

In the 21st century, we have moved into new areas of debate over freedoms from Magna Carta and the Constitution as government has charged ahead with mass surveillance of U.S. citizens, arresting and holding individuals without trial, and execution of U.S. citizens and noncitizens without trial.

With the 800th birthday of Magna Carta, it’s surely time to raise a national conversation on how Americans can regain their constitutional rights — and apply these rights to all humans — based on this historic document.


1297 version of Magna Carta

Roger Armbrust

Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is an associate curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. He is also co-founder and co-curator of reality: a world of views.

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1 Response

  1. Tami Greever says:

    And to your well-stated report, I add Civil Forfeiture as a practice insulting the spirit of the Magna Carta. Our property can never be considered guilty for imagined purpose without a fair trial by peers. Homes, cars, cash and equipment are stolen daily under the auspice of property’s intent to act criminally. Absurd? Yes. And America has reached a point of absurdity.

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