Today is a special day in the history of democracy and jurisprudence, the 796th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede in England on June 15, 1215. The document required King John to proclaim certain individual liberties, and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no “freeman” (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land. The Wikipedia entry describes it as “the first document forced onto an English King by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their privileges.” Constitutional scholar Rob Natelson of the Independence Institute was invited to write the entry on the Magna Carta for the limited-edition Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. He told me that he considers the Magna Carta as “Probably the greatest Anglo-American legal document of all.” It’s certainly the charter for modern democracy, the basis for eight centuries of British and American law (copied around the world), and the foundation for the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland especially sought to reflect various points of the Magna Carta in their early charters and laws. In 1957, the American Bar Association acknowledged the debt that American law and constitutionalism owed to Magna Carta by erecting a monument at Runnymede.
British jurist Sir William Blackstone organized the 1215 version into numbered articles. Article 39 of the Magna Carta can be translated as, 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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. It is this article that establishes and protects the right to a trial by local jury in criminal and civil cases, to protect all other individual liberties from the power of centralized government. The Founding Fathers studied the Magna Carta and knew the many instances in which the British had deprived them of their right. John Adams referred to it as “that fundamental law” when opposing the Stamp Act of 1765, and the deprivation of jury trials was among the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence. George Mason, who refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t explicitly protect individual rights and the prerogatives of states, drew upon it for his writings, which eventually led to the enactment of the Bill of Rights.
All those who live liberty and cherish individual rights should raise a toast and a prayer today to those good people of England who stood their ground against King John’s army and established the basis for self-government.