Celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta

image002June 15, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, one of the fundamental documents that helped to form the foundation of the U.S. legal system. Written in 1215 and presented by English barons to King John at Runnymede, it outlined specific rights inherent to all free men in England that the king could not usurp. It limited the king’s powers, ensured swift justice, prohibited unreasonable taxation, protected personal liberty and declared that no man, even the king, was above the law.

In honor of Magna Carta’s anniversary, the Coleman Karesh Law Library at the University of South Carolina School of Law invites you to view a collection of historic legal documents on display through September in the S.C. Legal History Room. Items in the exhibit include Henry de Bracton’s De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliæ libri quinq (On the Laws and Customs of England) (1569) and volume three of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland (1587), on loan from the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Thomas Cooper Library. 

This spring, A. E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia School of Law traced the historic document’s impact on American constitutional law in the 2015 Benjamin Hagood Lecture, “Magna Carta: A Legacy 800 Years in the Making,” presented by the University of South Carolina School of Law and University Libraries.

“Magna Carta is not only an English legacy but an American legacy,” he said. Along with the Petition of Right of 1628 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, Magna Carta was the foundation of British law, setting out rights that were guaranteed to all British citizens. When the colonists settled in America, they came with the understanding that the same rights they enjoyed in England applied here as well. “The idea was, if you made the trip to America and settled here, you didn’t leave your rights behind,” Howard said. When Britain levied taxes on the colonies to pay for the French and Indian War, the colonists viewed it as a violation of their basic right to taxation only by consent, prompting the American Revolution with Magna Carta as the rallying cry.

After independence, as the fledgling nation was writing its laws, Magna Carta was again important, this time in the decision to include a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. “At the South Carolina ratifying convention, Patrick Dollard opposed the proposed constitution because it had no Bill of Rights,” Howard said. “He said his constituents were not unwilling to give Congress ample powers that it might need to run a good government, but he said ‘to make over to them their birthright in Magna Carta, which this new constitution absolutely does, they can never agree to.’”

Today, several provisions of American constitutional law can be traced to Magna Carta, including the rule of law, the articulation of fundamental rights, the idea of putting a constitution in writing, the notion of constitutional supremacy and, according to Howard, the idea of the Constitution as an organic, unfolding, evolving document open to reinterpretation from one generation to the next.

“I think it’s a powerful tradition of the evolving constitution,” he said. The due process clause, for instance, has been put to varying uses in American history, from one generation to the next. “Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Lawrence v Texas in 1993 that ‘those who drew and modified the due process clause … knew times can blind us to certain truths, and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.’ I think Magna Carta’s legacy will remain very much with us through this unending search for the provenances of order and liberty.”