The Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence

Two important documents have made a landmark on the democratic process in two countries; England and the United States. Researching on these documents will lead you to an important lesson as to how   democratic rights were established in the recent history.

The words were translated from Latin words meaning “GREAT CHARTER”. The Magna Carta was written in 1214 and further developed into its restated and commonly accepted form in 1215. Signed by King John of England who had agreed to the original charter a year before, the Charter of 1215 included a preamble and 63 basic laws for the government of England. It wasn’t an agreement King John signed willingly, in fact, he tried to have it outlawed a year later claiming he had signed it “under duress”.

Though the Second Continental Congress had recessed for three weeks, that did not mean an end to their business.  Before the close of business on June 7th, Richard Henry Lee had submitted a second resolution.  This one stated that “a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”  On June 12th a Committee was established to begin that work.  You will learn more about that committee and their efforts when we move on to the next part of this exhibit.

Meanwhile Thomas Jefferson was busily preparing the document he had been delegated to write, a “letter of resignation” to declare the Colonies independence from England.    His effort was influenced by many things including Magna Carta, but the manuscript was uniquely Jefferson’s.  He reportedly finished his first draft in less than two weeks using “neither book or pamphlet.”

The document we now call The Declaration of Independence went through several steps to the finished form we know today.  Fifty years later Jefferson wrote, “I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee (of five including Sherman and Livingston) I communicated it separately to Dr. (Benjamin) Franklin and (John) Adams requesting their corrections.”

After Franklin and Adams had made their own suggestions and corrections to the rough draft, Jefferson said he “wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee (of five), and from them, (submitted it) unaltered to the Congress.”  Though considered to be a rather poor speaker, Thomas Jefferson’s brilliance as a writer became quickly evident in The Declaration of Independence.   Drawing on the philosophy of 17th Century philosopher John Locke, Magna Carta, and The Virginia Declaration of Rights, his manuscript was historic.

The Magna Carta

“The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history . . . It was written in Magna Carta.”

Magna Carta, 1297:   Widely viewed as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Magna Carta, 1297: Widely viewed as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941 Inaugural address

On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta. Confronted by 40 rebellious barons, he consented to their demands in order to avert civil war. Just 10 weeks later, Pope Innocent III nullified the agreement, and England plunged into internal war.

Although Magna Carta failed to resolve the conflict between King John and his barons, it was reissued several times after his death. On display at the National Archives, courtesy of David M. Rubenstein, is one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Magna Carta. This version was entered into the official Statute Rolls of England.

Enduring Principles of Liberty

Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. The interests of the common man were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement. But there are 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.”

Inspiration for Americans

During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (“no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”) is a direct descendent of Magna Carta’s guarantee of proceedings according to the “law of the land.”

 Following is sourced from The Telegraph, London http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/11383687/The-Magna-Carta-explained.html

The Magna Carta was granted 800 years ago. So what is it, how did it come about, and what does it do today?

  • What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta is an 800-year-old document containing the idea that no-one is above the law, and it still forms the foundation of many modern ideas and documents today.

  • What does Magna Carta mean?

It means “Great Charter” in Latin. In fact the whole document is in Latin.

  • When and where was Magna Carta granted?

Magna Carta was first drawn up in 1215, granted by King John on June 15 at Runnymede near the River Thames in Surrey. A different version (the one we draw from today) was reissued by John’s son, Henry III, 10 years later in 1225. Magna Carta was finally enrolled on the statute book (meaning it became part of English law) by Edward I in 1297.

  • How many of the original Magna Carta documents survive?

King John sent copies of the first Magna Carta across his kingdom – though we are not certain about the actual number. Today only four survive: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Library.

  • Why was Magna Carta first written and granted?

Despite what it stands for today, Magna Carta was not written with lofty ideas of justice and liberty in mind. It was originally meant as a peace treaty between King John (of Robin Hood fame) and his barons, with whom he was at war. The barons had captured London and John found himself in a political mess – he needed a quick get-out solution.

  • Did Magna Carta achieve its short-term aims of creating peace?

Not at all – in fact it failed spectacularly. Although John agreed to Magna Carta at first, he quickly became bitter when its terms were forced upon him. He wrote to the Pope to get it annulled. The Pope actually happened to agree with John (for once), saying Magna Carta was “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”. He then declared the charter “null and void of all validity for ever”.

Full-scale civil war then broke out between John and his barons. It only ended after John’s death from illness in 1216.

 the-british-library

  • Is it true that King John never “signed” Magna Carta?

Yes, at least not in the way we think of signing. Back in the Middle Ages kings never signed their name on documents to pass them into law. Instead John used his Great Seal to authenticate the document. This subtlety has confused many people over the years. Most recently the Royal Mint has been criticised for the design on its commemorative 800th anniversary £2 coin, which shows John brandishing the document and a quill.

  • Why did John’s son reissue Magna Carta?

Henry III came to the throne aged just nine. A few days into his reign, important men around the young king issued a new version of Magna Carta to try to regain the barons’ support. When Henry reached 18 years old he reissued a greatly-revised version in his own name. This 1225 document was granted explicitly in return for a tax payment by the whole kingdom.

why-did-john

 KIng John places his seal on Magna Carta in 1215 ALAMY

  • How much of Magna Carta is relevant today?

The original Magna Carta had 63 clauses. A third of this text was either cut or rewritten for the 1225 version. Today, only three of the original 63 clauses remain on the statute books. Of these three survivors one defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third gives all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial.

There are some very good reasons the other 60 clauses have been dropped. Many are very specific to the Middle Ages – dealing with property ownership, the workings of the justice system, and taxes with no modern equivalent (“scutage” and “socage” anyone?)

Other clauses that we have dispensed with include a law banning fish weirs on rivers, the dismissal of specific individual royal servants, and the standardisation of weights and measures we do not use any more.

  • How important is that clause about justice and a fair trial?

It is incredibly important today, but it was buried deep in the original document and made very little splash in 1215. Part of its success is its adaptability to all sorts of situations throughout the centuries.

If you were wondering what the actual text was, here it is (translated into modern English of course):

“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. To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice.”

That basically means the law belongs to everyone, not just the powerful. It is the bedrock of our society today.

  • When has Magna Carta been used throughout the centuries?

In 1265 – just 40 years after Henry III’s final reissuing of Magna Carta – the relationship between the promises made by the king and the granting of taxation paved the way for the first English Parliament.

In the next century, Parliament interpreted Magna Carta as a right to a fair trial for all subjects.

During the Stuart period, and particularly in the English Civil War, Magna Carta was used to restrain the power of monarchs (at a time when monarchs on the continent were supremely powerful).

There are strong influences from Magna Carta in the American Bill of Rights (written in 1791). To this day there is a 1297 copy in the National Archives in Washington DC.

Even more recently, we can see the basic principles of Magna Carta very clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – penned in 1948 just after the Second World War.

When King John stuck his seal on that parchment eight centuries ago, he could not possibly have known the magnitude of what he was doing.

 The American Declaration of Independence

 american-declaration-independence

The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
Georgia:
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
Massachusetts:
John Hancock
Maryland:
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Virginia:
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Pennsylvania:
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Delaware:
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Massachusetts:
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Connecticut:
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton