An Unexpected Trajectory
The Magna Carta’s history followed an intriguing and unexpected trajectory. When King John first signed the charter at Runnymede, it was a temporary concession to ensure the support of the barons. By no means did King John express a genuine interest in subjecting himself to the rule of law as stated in the charter, nor did the barons, who had privilege over most of the English people of the time and whose primary motivation was the better protection of their own land and properties. In the following two centuries, the Magna Carta was revised and reconfirmed numerous times to ensure support for the monarch, but its effect and application remained limited to the king and barons, and later, a small number of freemen.
Yet history took a surprising turn, and the Magna Carta’s treasures were rediscovered and reinterpreted in the seventeenth century by Sir Edward Coke, who swept aside the feudal remnants of the charter. Coke’s interpretation cast bright lights on the rights and freedom of all English people as defined in the Magna Carta, and that interpretation became deeply rooted in the minds of English people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Influence on the U.S. Legal System
The Magna Carta’s long-lasting influence on the U.S. legal system began when the settlers fought for their rights under the Magna Carta as guaranteed to all Englishmen, roughly around the same time as Coke’s interpretation was adopted by English society. Hundreds of years later, the rights and freedom eventually extended to all Americans, regardless of wealth, gender, or race. The principles embodied by the Magna Carta remain very much applicable to U.S. common and constitutional laws. For example, we owe the idea of a written constitution to the Magna Carta. Languages of the Magna Carta occupied a central place in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “The supreme law of the land” in the supremacy clause appeared for the first time in the 1297 version of the Magna Carta.
The due process clause in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution was drawn from the Magna Carta, in which King John promised to protect his people from being imprisoned for crimes unless the punishment was deemed just by their peers or the appropriate law. The document also gave rise to modern habeas corpus law and was influential in the creation of the Sixth Amendment, which ensures that U.S. citizens receive a fair and speedy trial without delay by an impartial jury in all criminal proceedings. The Magna Carta demanded that the monarch could only give punishments that were proportionate to the seriousness of the crime, which is echoed in the Eight Amendment that prohibits government from imposing fines or other types of punishment that are disproportionate to the offense convicted.
The Magna Carta also continued to exert influence in the years following the original Bill of Rights, as is evident by the numerous comments and commentary on its application in U.S. law. A recent Westlaw search showed over 1,300 mentions of the phase “magna carta” in case law.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect the U.S. society against tyranny and abuse of people’s rights and liberty, just as the barons had hoped—although for a much more limited population—when they drafted the Magna Carta 800 years ago. The significance of the Magna Carta lies both in its legal and symbolic legacy. It gave rise to principles that support the foundation of our legal system today. More importantly, it shaped our belief in the rights and freedoms, guaranteed and protected by law, that influence every sector of our society.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tort Source, Vol. 17, No. 2. Published by the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association. Copyright © 2015 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.