This is the first part of a series where I explore different aspects, events, and ingredients necessary for the concept of universal human equality. Not being the normal expectation throughout the majority of human history, I wanted to understand where the concept came from and how it has come to be “self-evident.” As we move further away from the roots of these concepts, both conceptually and in time, my fear is that we lose the ability to articulate why the concept of equality is important and what it is specifically that is equal among us, thus losing the ability to defend it from “new” ideas that threaten those foundations.
Today, I start with one ingredient in the development of our current concepts of equality: Magna Carta.
Upon taking a trip to Runnymede, which is the first spot of green southwest of London, you may be surprised to find an incredibly quaint grassy field with little more than a few cottages and a boat house on the River Thames. Today, what is now little more than a place where people go to walk their dogs, the concept of humanity as we know it took what the British would call a “brilliant” turn toward equality for all. This is where, what would later be called the Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of Freedoms, was accepted by the highly unpopular King John of England on June 15th,1215. Curiously enough, as significant as this event may have been, the memorial could be missed if you drive by too quickly, and it was actually erected by foreigners.
The memorial’s eight columns surround an elevated stone cylinder that pays respects to the Magna Carta as a “Symbol of Freedom Under Law.” Above the inscription is a star that bears a great resemblance to the stars on the flag of the United States of America, which makes sense when you realize who dedicated the memorial. As you approach the column and lift your head, you may notice the inscription tells you this monument was dedicated by the American Bar Association. Apparently, American lawyers value the document’s contributions more than the direct descendants who still live under its most important dictates.
The connection here is quite obvious when we think about who it was that settled on the eastern coast of North America and from whom they drew their ideas about individual liberty. The pilgrims who settled the first colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, came from an English tradition of common law directly tied to the Magna Carta. Ironically enough, they fled a place structured in part on individual freedoms written in law, in order to escape persecution for exercising those very freedoms in a religious context.
But what exactly is so important about a document written more than 800 years ago that didn’t last as law for more than a month before King John asked for it to be quashed and the barons it was meant to protect essentially abandoned it? It set into motion one of the most important concepts fundamental to human liberty and equality: the rule of law.
Among its preamble and 63 chapters, two chapters stand out as fundamental to the concept of the rule of law that is still referenced today. Chapters 39 and 40 lay out two specific, important, and lasting ideas:
- Chapter 39 — “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
- Chapter 40 — “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”
Significant to these statements is the fact that they specifically restricted the ability of the king to rule arbitrarily. Up until this point, the king had the ability to do with those under his rule as he liked. Once there are some rules that the king himself must also abide by, there is a sense of consistency and expectations on which individuals who are protected from otherwise arbitrary rules can operate. Things as simple as earning a living, saving your funds, and purchasing property and passing those things on to your kin, are now possible without the constant worry of confiscation by a ruling class not bound by any laws.
To be fair, the document was incredibly discriminatory by today’s standards. When it spoke of a “free man,” it was not being ambiguous. The largest section of England’s population at the time was unfree peasants, and free or not, women were not part of their consideration. The Magna Carta was little more than an attempt by social elites to guard their property and lives against the tyrannical rule of an overbearing and power-hungry king. This was not a watershed moment in equality for all human beings across ethnic, gender, and class divisions, but a planted seed of future liberties that needed to be sown at the right time, and in the right place. And Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton was thankfully on hand, with the right ideas, to draft the Magna Carta.
It was no secret King John was not a fan of Archbishop Stephen Langton. A feud had broken out between King John and Pope Innocent III that eventually led to the pope excommunicating the king from the church. This feud was a consequence of the Catholic church increasingly asserting its papal authority, while the king continued to push back against it. King John’s choice for the position, Hubert Walter, who died in 1205, was first and foremost loyal to King John, but not as learned as the pope’s choice.
Stephen Langton was and still today is known for his theological work, which included separating the Bible into the chapters we use today. His lectures, which he delivered at the University of Paris, were heavily disseminated and read by theological scholars, and it garnered him the informal title of England’s foremost churchman. And when reviewing those lectures, you can see their echoes via Biblical prophets in the two chapters of the Magna Carta referenced above.
“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life [. . .].” — Deuteronomy 17:18–19
Much of what Stephen Langton lectured on and warned of was the danger of tyranny. Pulling from the book of Samuel and Deuteronomy, he placed specific restrictions in the text of the Magna Carta to reign in that natural tendency toward the usurpation of power, while protecting “freed men.” There is a common theme in his lectures on the subject that refers to “the avarice [. . .] of modern kings, who collect treasure not in order that they may sustain necessity but to satiate their cupidity.” This is exactly what chapters 39 and 40 aim to address.
And yet still, regardless of the aims of the document and its origins, it did not achieve the peace it was written for but lasted a mere month before it was rejected and abandoned by both sides. Not long after, the aggrieved barons gave up any hope of reconciliation with King John and offered his throne to the son of his arch enemy, the king of France. This move devolved into a civil war. King John died not long after, and his nine year old son, Henry III, ascended the throne. As a means of gaining support from English rebels during this civil war, Henry’s governors reissued the Magna Carta upon King John’s death. After winning the civil war, the Magna Carta was again reissued in 1217, then issued again for a third and final time in 1225, and confirmed several times by Henry and later by his son, Edward I. The 1225 version is the final and iconic version, and it is still referenced today, although no document is officially adopted as law for English Parliament. The Magna Carta serves as a guide, or a constant reminder, of a precedence set that binds the present to the past.
Is the document or its spirit still relevant today? Well, it’s important to remember that the idea of equality was an invention and not a given characteristic of human society. The vast majority of human history is characterized by hierarchies that do not include a concept of common humanity. Although the Magna Carta is by no means the first attempt to articulate something approaching the idea of equality, it is possibly the first time the concept of the “rule of law” was accepted, however begrudgingly, by the nation’s sovereign ruler. Having a written document to which all people are accountable helps to remove ambiguity and secure an expectation of consistency in its application. And that significance has not been lost on those who have historically fought for human equality and freedom.
The Founders of the United States referenced the Magna Carta in their arguments for liberty, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. This consistent reference to a concept written so long ago is what makes the Magna Carta such a significant inflection point in the journey toward universal human equality. It’s no wonder that nations so much larger and more vast than England, including the United States and India, have gone out of their way to pay homage by erecting memorials in Runnymede, to an 800-year-old document written on the skin of sheep.