- - Sunday, June 7, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Some anniversaries are important, some are remembered and some are forgotten. One of the most important anniversaries in the history of Western civilization that must not be forgotten will be marked this week for the 800th time. The rights derived from the Magna Carta, by which the Constitution lives, guard the lives of every American.

In an ahistorical contemporary society, where our schools and universities relegate the story of the past to the dustbin of history, it is good and proper to pause for a moment to remind ourselves how important was this moment in our history. The Magna Carta, whose spirit survived though often abused, is the cornerstone of the framework of modern society.

Ironically, the participants in the events which led to the 4,000-word document, inscribed in Latin on sheepskin parchment and sealed at Runnymede on the Thames near London, were likely unaware of their momentous undertaking. It was, after all, first an account of weights and measures, the placement of fish-traps, the treatment of French mercenaries and Welsh hostages. It was the product of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s attempt to prevent a war between King John and the English aristocrats, and failed to do that. King John immediately called on Pope Innocent III to annul it, which he did. War broke out, anyway.

Yet the very fact that a document had been signed which established the rights of the aristocrats, if not the people, curbed the authority of an absolute monarch and set a precedent that would eventually include the people, too. With considerable “editing,” the Magna Carta Liberatum — “the Great Charter of the Liberties” — was reissued in 1216, and again in 1217, this time with a memorable pledge that “neither we nor our heirs will determine anything by which the liberties contained in this charter be violated or weakened.” Over the centuries, British king after king called up ‘the Great Charter” as the basis of reaffirmation that they shared their power, first with the aristocracy, and then, if grudgingly, with the Parliament.

The fact that the original document concerned itself with mundane economic problems might have saved it. Section 39: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Section 40: “To no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”

These additions were meant to arm the barons against the king, and it was these additions that established rights of free men, and armed them against the arbitrary whims and ambitions of rulers, and put them on the long and steady march of the Anglo-Saxon societies toward the representative governments we know today.

These concepts are still under attack in many parts of the world, and not only in the parts of the world beyond the seas separating the Old World from the New. Governments everywhere give up rights slowly and reluctantly, as the history of the Great Charter of the Liberties amply demonstrates. Celebrating the Magna Carta thus becomes an obligation, not mere ceremony.

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