April 24, 2008

How the Magna Carta Changed the World

Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the
discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history
being made today.

It is crumbling, water-stained and written in Medieval Latin, but
the Magna Carta has managed to remain relevant to the cause of human
rights even today, 800 years after it was scrawled on parchment and
affirmed with the sticky wax seal of the English king.

England's "Great Charter" of 1215 was the first document to challenge the authority of the king, subjecting him to the rule of the law and protecting his people from feudal abuse.

Although most of the charter's ideas were revised or have since been
repealed, the Magna Carta's fundamental tenets provided the outline for
modern democracies. One of its clauses, still in the English law books,
has been credited as the first definition of habeas corpus - the universal right to due process.

Taking a cue from the document more than five centuries later,
American revolutionaries incorporated many of the Magna Carta's basic
ideas into another important piece of parchment - the U.S.

Robin Hood's King John reviled by all

Feudalism was the framework by which all landowning was governed in
England during medieval times. It essentially granted the king control
of all the land in his kingdom, which was worked by peasants and
overseen by feudal barons. Everyone in the hierarchy had financial and
social responsibilities to the rank above them, including the barons,
who reported directly to the king.

Most of England's kings didn't exercise all of their feudal rights,
such as the power to control who their tenants married. That wasn't the
case, however, with King John, the ruler fictionalized as the bad guy
in "Robin Hood."
John's abuses of the feudal system were frequent and angered the
barons, who were regularly extorted of their lands and profits.

Fed up, in 1215 the barons rebelled and pressured the king into signing the Magna Carta,
a list of 63 clauses drawn up to limit John's power. It was the first
time royal authority officially became subject to the law, instead of
reigning above it.

Multiple copies of the parchment were inked and sealed in 1215, and read throughout the realm.

Early colonists sailed over with their rights

Tucked inconspicuously near the middle of the Magna Carta is what
historians consider one of the document's most enduring legacies. Habeas corpus,
or the right to due process and a trial by jury, is a universal legal
concept today, but didn't exist in the law books until the barons noted
in the Magna Carta that:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his
rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled ... except by the lawful
judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

Though the statement wasn't a standout feature of the Magna Carta
when it was first published, it was invoked over the centuries -
especially during tumultuous times - to preserve civil liberties. The
English Civil War crisis of the 17th-century was one such time, and it
was also during this period that many Englishmen set off for the
American colonies.

By the mid 18th-century, the New World colonies were populated by a
group of first-generation new Americans highly educated in English law,
such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. At the end of the Revolutionary War, when it was time to draft a constitution for the new United States
of America, those men included the best of the English rights they'd
been taught, adapted to the circumstances of the monarch-free land.

Still of great significance today, the Fifth Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution reads almost identically to that statute, written 575
years earlier.