Magna Carta is one of the constitutional influences featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Magna Carta is certainly the father of American Government, but the Charter of Liberties is the grandfather. It was the written proclamation issued to Henry I upon his ascension to the throne in 1100 seeking to bind him to certain laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials and individuals. The document addressed the abuses of royal power by his predecessor William Rufus, including overtaxation of barons, and was truly the forerunner to Magna Carta.
Latin for “Great Charter”, Magna Carta was issued in 1215 by King John of England as a way of dealing with his own political crisis. It was the first governmental decree establishing that all people, including the king, were equally subject to the law.
History of Magna Carta
King John I ruled England, Ireland, and sometimes Wales and Scotland from 1177-1216. Richard I, his predecessor, had spent much of the kingdom’s wealth on the crusades.
In 1200, John lost lands in Normandy ending the Angevin Empire. In 1209, he got into an argument with Pope Innocent III over the naming of the Archbishop of Canterbury and was excommunicated from the Church.
John needed money both to wage war to get his lands back in Normandy and to get back in the Pope’s good graces so he did what kings always did, he taxed his already heavily taxed subjects; however, the barons fought back forcing a meeting with the king at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215. At that meeting, John was forced to sign a “Great Charter” protecting some of the barons basic rights against royal action.
Up until the Magna Carta’s creation, enjoyed supreme rule. Now, for the first time, the king had to respect the rule of law and not abuse his power or authority.
Key Provisions of Magna Carta
The following was included in the 1215 version of Magna Carta:
- Habeas Corpus, known as the right to due process, proclaimed that free men could only be imprisoned and punished after lawful judgment by a jury of their peers.
- Justice could not be sold, delayed or denied.
- Civil lawsuits did not need to be held in the king’s court
- The Common Council had to approve the amount of money vassals had to pay instead of military service (called scutage) along with any other aid requested from them with three exceptions, but in all cases, the aid called for had to be reasonable.
- In other words, the king 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 that included a stated purpose of why it was to be called.
- For commoners, all fines had to be reasonable so that their livelihoods could not be taken away. Further, any offense a commoner was said to have committed had to be sworn to by “good men of the neighborhood”.
- Bailiffs and constables could not appropriate people’s possessions
- London and other cities were given the right to collect customs
- The king could not have a mercenary army.
- Under feudalism, the barons were the army; therefore, 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 we would call today an inheritance tax set in advance.
- The king himself had to follow the law of the land.
America At Founding
Looking at the provisions, the influence Magna Carta had on our system of government can be found in several key documents including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and various state Constitutions.
Journal of the Continental Congress
In the Journal of the Continental Congress, the official record kept of the Congress’ deliberations from May 10, 1775 and March 2, 1789, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances (drafted in September and October 1774) drafted by the colonists demanded the same liberties guaranteed to them under “the principles of the English Constitution and it’s several charters or governments.” This included from Magna Carta:
- self government
- freedom from taxation without representation
- the right to a trial by jury by their own countrymen
- enjoyment of “life, liberty and property” free from interference from the English crown.
18th Century America
Colonial Americans generally had a distrust of sovereign authority. For this reason, state Constitutions included declarations of rights retained by individual citizens and lists of those protections of citizens from state governments.
Magna Carta is the source of belief of citizens at that time that they had rights when it came to oppressive government. Due in part to this conviction to individual liberty embodied in Magna Carta, the newly form United States also adopted a Bill of Rights.
Bill of Rights
As originally proposed to Congress in 1791, there were twelve amendments to the Constitution. These were strongly influenced by Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776 which incorporated a number of the protections of Magna Carts. As a ratified document, the five of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights directly reflect protections from Magna Carta:
- 4th Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizures
- 5th Amendment protection of rights to life, liberty, and property
- 6th Amendment rights of accused persons in criminal cases
- 7th Amendment rights in civil cases
- 8th Amendment rights kept by the people
Finally, many broader constitutional principles and doctrines have their roots in 18th century colonial interpretation of Magna Carta including:
- the theory of representative government
- the idea of a supreme law
- a government based on a clear separation of powers
- the doctrine of judicial review of legislative and executive acts
Next Constitutional Influence: Mayflower Compact