Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: “1215: The Year of Magna Carta” (Danziger and Gillingham, 2003)

The Magna Carta shows the start of issues still echoing in our own time.

In 1215 the nobles of England were in civil war with King John. The rebellions was a result of many factors – increased taxes, unsuccessful military campaigns to protect John's lands in France, takings of lands as royal "forests", holding the relatives of various aristocracy as hostages, and more.

The nobles drew up the Magna Carta as a unifying document for their various grievances. In 1215 at the meadow of Runnymede the barons and their armies forced John to sign the Magna Carta. Almost immediately he reneged on a document he was forced to sign under duress, and the civil war continued, until John died within the next year. The regents of his son then agreed to the Magna Carta to regain authority and end the civil war.

The Magna Carta combines an eclectic set of broad proscriptions on the king's power with very narrow remedies to specific issues in King John's reign. Each chapter in the book takes one or more clauses of the Magna Carta as a springboard for discussion of the context of the underlying issues. The discussion covers the history, mores, politics, religion, and technology of the time, sometimes ranging a century or so before or after the Magna Carta.

Here are excerpts from selected clauses, showing the range of the general and specific:

In both clauses 1 and 63, the first and last: We wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free.
17:    Common pleas shall not follow the court but be held in some fixed place.
31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men's timber…
33. All fish weirs shall be removed from the Thames and Medway and throughout all England except on the sea coast.
35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale and one of corn…
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
45. We will not make justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land…
58. We will restore the once the son of Lleywlyn and all of the hostages from Wales…

The sweeping statement that the "English church shall be free" reflects conflicts where the King was inserting himself into church life: the selection of bishops, heads of monasteries, and taxation or organization of church lands. Clause 17, 40, and 45, and others like them established a regular judiciary – formerly, plaintiffs had to chase the King's court around the country as he moved from castle to castle and judicial positions were for sale. Clause 31, 33, and others roll back "takings" (in modern parlance.) And clause 58 example some of the overreach of John – he had taken various members of aristocracy as hostages to force behavior. The last clause of the charter echoes the first – the church shall be free. Apparently this was a hot button topic.

Reading "1215" gave me a new historical perspective on the American Revolution and founding documents of the United States – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Like the Magna Carta, The Declaration lays out particular grievances of the colonist. In contrast to the Magna Carta, which establishes new constraints on the King, the Declaration chooses to break the bond and says "these colonies are… free and independent states." The Magna Carta's constraints on the King's government structure are reflected in the definition of the branches in the Constitution. From the perspective of colonists used to the rights that started with the Magna Carta, it is clear that the Constitution is an incomplete document – it needs the explicit enumeration of rights and restrictions on the government contained in the Bill of Rights. Almost all of these are generalizations of the broad clauses of the Magna Carta. Like the Charter, the Bill starts out with freedom of religion.

Taking an even longer view, we see multiple steps in the evolving theory of rights. The Magna Carta is mostly concerned with the relation of the king to the barons and knights of England (the rights of armed power holders.) By the time of the American Revolution, rights were extended to non-slave, non-Native American adult male landowners. Property ownership was slowly removed as a requirement (it remained in North Carolina until 1856.)

The U.S. went through another shift with the post civil war amendments to the Constitution – all adult males (possibly excepting Native Americans) could vote, and all persons born here were citizens. In the 20th century voting was extended to women, and the latter part of the century saw battles to actually claim the rights for non-whites that had ostensibly been granted in the Civil War amendments. This puts the Magna Carta as first in a lineage of American rights, and makes it clear that civil liberties are a very long-term evolving, enlarging concept; and that the Constitution and its amendments should be seen in this perspective.

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