LONDON — Eight centuries ago, a peace treaty came into being that would become a pillar of English law and the basis of constitutional democracies in the United States and around the world hundreds of years later. Rebel barons made King John of England seal the Magna Carta — the Great Charter — on June 15, 1215, in a bid to limit the power of the monarch, who they viewed as cruel and greedy, USA Today reports. .
The document set out the principle that everybody was subject to the law, even the king, for the first time on written record. Some of its key principles influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other legal systems. On Monday, Queen Elizabeth II, her husband Prince Philip, Prince William, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other dignitaries marked the anniversary in Runnymede in the county of Surrey, near London, where King John sealed the charter.
A statue of the queen was unveiled near the site Sunday, and the royal barge Gloriana led 200 boats along the River Thames to Runnymede over the weekend. “Magna Carta was a milestone in world history, and its birthplace at Runnymede deserves a lasting legacy,” said the Surrey County Council, one of the organizers of the anniversary ceremony. The four known surviving copies of the charter are kept at the cathedrals of the cities of Lincoln in northeast England and Salisbury in the south, and two are held in the British Library.
So how has a document that began almost a millennium ago become such a profound part of life as we know it today? Historians say Magna Carta is even more revered in the United States than it is in England. “The basis of the Magna Carta is a bastion against tyranny and against over-mighty government,” Derek Taylor, the author of the book Magna Carta in 20 Places, told USA TODAY. He said the charter’s importance in the U.S. “can’t be underestimated.”
“There’s something about the Magna Carta that rings a bell and chimes with the fundamental American belief about the way society should organize itself,” he said. However, the brutality against Native Americans and slaves and the treatment of women and slave descendants as second-class citizens for generations after the signing of the Constitution show that “it took a long time for those words to have any meaning,” he added.
Due process can be traced to Chapter 39 of Magna Carta and is incorporated into the Fifth Amendment, which includes the provision that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” “For America’s founding fathers, Magna Carta symbolized the “rule of law,” the precept that a government is bound by the law in dealing with its people,” Ralph Turner, history professor emeritus at the University of Florida, said in an article titled Magna Carta in the United States.
“This view was set forth first in the Declaration of Independence, then in the state constitutions of the former 13 colonies, and in the fifth and 14th amendments to the federal Constitution,” he wrote. More than 1,000 celebrations are taking place in the 53 commonwealth countries this month to commemorate the charter, Sir Robert Worcester, chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, told USA TODAY.
“It’s England’s greatest export,” he said. “It affects the lives of nearly 2 billion people in over 100 countries throughout the world. It’s the foundation of liberty, it’s the foundation of human rights, it’s the foundation of democracy.”