The Great Charter: The First Great Step In Constitutional Liberty

During the early Middle Ages, English kings were oppressive, and neither the nobles nor the people had any voice in the affairs of state. The nobles despised the absolute rule of the king, and the common people resented the high taxes. The clergy, the nobles, and the middle class concluded that the only way they could fix the problem was by banding together, and when one of their worst Kings, John, came to the throne, they decided to act.

King John was dishonest, treacherous, and hated by all classes. He seemed to be at war with everyone; he overtaxed the common people, quarreled with his vassals, and fought with the Pope. John also engaged in a war with the King of France to the loss of many English possessions. The people, suffering from tyranny and oppressive taxes, refused to help John.

But John, with this long list of transgressions, added this one above them all, he imprisoned his liberty-loving subjects who objected to his arbitrary rule – without trial! Many of these poor souls rotted in filthy dungeons for years.

[[[ Pause here for a moment before you read on, and think about what it cost our forefathers to secure for us the right of trial by jury. ]]]

The nobles had enough! They decided their only option was to compel John to restore their liberties. On June 15, 1215, armed barons gathered together at Runnymede, and forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, the Great Charter. It was a lengthy document setting forth limitations on arbitrary power, drafted by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, and a committee of noblemen.

Here’s the Great Charter in a nutshell:

First, it assured the freedom of the church. Second, the feudal rights and privileges of the nobility were respected. Third, it forbade the king from extorting money from the people in the form of fines, taxes, or any other tricky measures, without first consulting the barons. Fourth, the king could no longer arbitrarily toss people into prison; people were to receive a speedy trial by jury. Fifth, the accused couldn’t be tried or punished more than once for the same offense. Sixth, it prohibited the king from taking a freeman’s property or banishing him without just cause. Seventh, the king was forced to allow the nobles to appoint a committee to keep an eye on him and punish him if he violated the charter.

Trial by jury is one of the outstanding features of this charter, which led Sir William Blackstone to predict immortality for the British Constitution:

“Greece fell, Rome fell, Venice fell; the Republics of modern times, that hovered around classic Italy, fell; but England will endure; for trial by jury will make the liberties of Englishmen eternal.”

Tyrants hate restraints, and, as you can guess, John, and his successor, Henry the 3rd, violated the charter, causing civil wars and a constitutional crisis. But these upheavals led to the Model Parliament in 1295, where a system of representation was set up.

The Magna Carta was a groundbreaking precedent. Here’s what followed:

1. Representative Government: Simon’s Parliament assembled in 1265 – that’s where the first House of Commons sat; Edward’s Parliament, called the Model Parliament, sat in 1295.

2. Liberty Based Charters: The Petition of Right (1626); The Habeas Corpus Act (1679); The English Bill of Rights (1689).

3. The Common Law: The above charters declared the principles, but it was the Common Law that expounded them. One scholar says of the common law,

“That law was the growth of many centuries; its maxims were those of a sturdy and independent race of men, who were accustomed in an unusual degree to freedom of thought and action, and to a share in the administration of public affairs. So far as they declared individual rights, they were a part of the constitution of the realm, and of that ‘law of the land’ the benefit of which was promised by the charter of King John to every freeman. They were modified and improved from age to age, by changes in the habits of thought and action among the people, by modifications in the civil and political state, by the vicissitudes of public affairs, by judicial decisions, and by statutes. The colonists claimed that this code of law accompanied them, as a standard of right and of protection in their emigration, and that it remained their law, excepting as in some particulars it was found unsuited to their circumstances in the New World. Relying upon it, they had well known and well-defined rules of protection; without it, they were at the mercy of those who ruled, and, whether actually oppressed or not, were without freedom.”

Americans should remember these dates and charters because they mark the first significant steps and the subsequent development of the system of representative government, constitutionalism, and the principles of individual liberty, all of which became more perfectly expressed in the U.S. Constitution.