800 Years of the Magna Carta: Traditions Retained in the U.S. Constitution

Posted on June 24, 2015


800 years ago in the fields of Runnymede, the most important political covenant in the history of the western world was made. At sword point, King John was forced by his barons to sign a document that imposed limitations upon his power. Provided that the restrictions were properly enforced, no longer would the king be able to rule simply by royal prerogative.

Several calamities led to the schism between King John and the barons: prolonged wars, conscription mandates, unlegislated taxation, indefinite detention of political rivals, and a disagreement over the selection of England’s top church official.

The first struggle between the king and the barons was the result of harsh taxation – John imposed the western world’s first income tax at a rate of 1/13th and enforced the edict vigorously. For this reason, the Magna Carta importantly emphasizes that Parliament holds sole power over taxation. In England’s constitutional tradition, the idea that taxes cannot be levied without the consent of the people’s representatives became a cherished maxim.

This tradition was retained in the United States Constitution, as Congress is the only body that can lay and collect taxes. In contrast to John’s taxes, the document specified that only certain “activities” could be taxed rather than an individual’s income. Article I, Section 8 also places other limitations on taxes, such as the requirement that indirect taxes must remain at a uniform rate throughout the states. Upon its inception, the United States Constitution did not allow for an income tax.

A secondary act of duplicity resulted from John’s decision to intervene in the religious will of the people. This occurred as John attempted to choose a candidate as Archduke of Canterbury, the most powerful religious figure in the kingdom, against the will of the barons. Upon the death of Hubert Walter in 1205, John sought to elect John de Gray to the position, a bishop who acted as a close advisor to the king and benefactor of governmental power. Clashing with both the barons and the Catholic Church over the selection, John’s action resulted in an excommunication by the Pope and a rebuke by the barons.

The candidate favored and eventually consecrated by Innocent was a man named Stephen Langton, who received the support of the barons. Even though England’s state religion was Catholicism, John’s attempt to dictate the election was seen as non-warranted government interference with England’s religious institution.

Assuredly, the guarantee of free exercise of religion codified in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution was influenced by the will of the barons to obstruct and oppose John’s religious intervention. Moreover, this circumstance made the explicit rejection of state religion a favorable prospect.

During his reign, John made many indiscriminate strides to charge and jail political dissidents. In this society, there was no independent judiciary, the lone system of law being that of what was directed by the king’s discretion. The Magna Carta asserts: “No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised (robbed of property) of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.” This text is sometimes called “Chapter 39,” and it established western civilization’s foundation for due process rights.

Today we recognize the affirmation of due process rights in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution largely because of this passage. The Seventh Amendment is also influenced by this text – it necessitates a representative cross section of the community to serve as jurors in criminal cases where defendants are charged. Both of these boundaries serve as barriers against an arbitrary government that seeks to detain individuals indefinitely.

In the first years after it was sealed, the Magna Carta ultimately failed to accomplish what it was intended to do – impose limitations on King John’s rule. Instead, the king totally disregarded the confines intended by the document, and plunged England into a new war against the barons. Ultimately, he died while trying to cling to his authoritarian tendencies, stubbornly refusing to abide by the candid attempt to inhibit his power.

Since then, the Magna Carta’s importance has gradually increased because of its unique position in the history of liberty – the first example of forced restrictions against royal authority. The document’s worth was reinvigorated throughout much of the remainder of English history, especially as callous kings attempted to tread the same path as John. In the 17th century, Charles Stuart was beheaded and James II was forcibly removed from the throne. In both cases, transgressions against the Magna Carta were cited as justification.

The Magna Carta did not guarantee liberty to all free persons, but it did serve as a lasting forerunner to all constitutions since. I wrote in my book that the Magna Carta “represented the first clear denunciation of the idea that the king is entitled to govern by his own personal prerogative, and that the only limitations to his rule are those of his own choosing.”

The constraints the barons forced upon John, of course, are timeless. If there is one certainty related to humanity, it is the unchanging confirmation that there will always be petty tyrants like John who rule with an iron fist, using the same tricks to violate individual liberty. The text should stand today as a reminder that limited government is always superior to unlimited, arbitrary rule. The brilliance of the Magna Carta remains its applicability to all ages – there will always be a King John somewhere.