THE GREAT LIBERTARIAN CHARTER A Guide for the Perplexed Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty

Magna Carta The Birth of LibertyIf the June 15, 2015 date is correct, the Magna Carta has been with Great Britain for eight centuries. British monarchs succeeding King John have renewed and reissued the charter, an exercise that in time confirmed the document as part of Great Britain’s political life with time-and-again upsurges in interest. Coke, we know, used the document’s arguments when he propounded an argument against the divine right of kings.

Whether the fundamentals of the American Constitution are directly embedded from the Magna Carta is open to debate. John Adams believed the fundamentals were stipulated. Close reading of the 1215 charter, on the other hand, tends to show that its largest concerns were between the monarch and “his” barons; ordinary people are, so to speak, left begging.

Still, it’s a profound enough document to excite considerable enthusiasm even after 800 years. Copies were on exhibit from late 2014 into early 2015. Commemorative coins were struck and circulated. There are good arguments arguing that the Great Charter is a key moment in the West’s advancement toward classical libertarianism in as much as the document sets precedent for libertarian descendants, i.e., its unforeseen consequences point toward the protection of individual liberties and against unbridled power.

How, then, did this ancient document come to be regarded as securing “the birth of liberty,” insisted upon–so said Tom Paine–by the people and not granted by the crown?

It’s the business of historian Dan Jones’ Magna Carta which surveys the making of the Great Charter and its legacy. It’s a fascinating dramatic story placed by Mr. Jones nicely in its proper historical context, and a marshy field near London.

The argument, of course, is that the charter remains a founding text of constitutional government. Hated King John is pressed by his barons to accept strict new limits on his monarchical power. In time, then, those limits become the means by which parliamentarians and revolutionaries opposed oppressive rulers.

As is also the case with anything that appears in the misty recesses of 800 years of history, there are snags and myths: Robin Hood may have been pursuing his Sherwood Forest career at about the same time. There is, in other words, political legend and then there’s that which is known.

The baron’s complaints? Extra taxes levied by King John to

fund and fight foreign wars, marriage and inheritance fees, and the king’s tendency to sell royal justice. Thus the negotiations at Runnymede were an attempt to end looming civil war. To fend off that rebellion, King John agreed not to impose new taxes on the barons without what came to be called the “common counsel of our

realm”; “free men” could not be arrested without due cause and neither could property be taken by the king without due cause.

The civil war, however, continued, which could have made the Great Charter a passing historical incident without progeny–still born.

What was “spied” in the document, however, was the principle that kings must govern by law and not by whimsy. When “spied” also in its historical context, Jones is prescient in reminding his readers that this thirteenth century time period is witness to the late Medieval “feudal” breakdown. Grievances may have varied widely but this document which dwells largely on tax relief gained legendary status in time.

And why not?

When King John’s barons were inspired to become defiant it does not take a stretch of the imagination to understand why in 1776 American patriots were also inspired to become defiant. The Great Charter opened the door for ideas which began in time to germinate in the hearts and minds of those citizens “disgrunted.”

Thus when the privileges either inserted or implied in this transaction at Runnymede historically develop, it’s not a far reach to argue that the “ruled” have it in their power to overthrow their “rulers.” What was originally intended to promote the interests of

the barons becomes in time advantageous to the whole community; the measure of liberty gained by the “exalted” classes becomes in time the larger measure of liberty for the “common” classes.

Magna Carta is one of history’s ironies. Likely the barons from that time period would object to contemporary notions of liberty; that much lauded 39th clause raises the historical curtain: 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 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’s a small phrase in the document but it marks a cultural, political, and social sea change buoying everyman’s lust for liberty and precedent for history’s libertarian descendants.

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