Magna Carta: An Unintended Birth to Basic Rights

If you love to see history with your own eyes and have the opportunity you can now view one of the few surviving copies of the Magna Carta in the National Archives in Washington, DC.  It is one of only 4 surviving copies of the 1297 issuance.  I have been able to personally view the document and it was quite a powerful experience to say the least.  There are few historical documents in history that carry such weight and significance for the free world. However, it was not originally intended for that purpose.

When King John placed his royal seal on the original “Articles of the Barons” in 1215 he could have never predicted the impact this document would have on future generations across the globe.  After some adjustments to the original document it would come to be known as Magna Carta.  This unprecedented document, agreed to only as a last effort to avoid a civil war and one he never intended to abide by, would unintentionally introduce the concept of basic rights for every individual to the world.

The document was by no means meant to provide commoners with such rights.  The barons who drew it up had only the protection of their own rights and property in mind.  In fact just 10 weeks after the document was signed it was nullified and war came anyway, but in time Magna Carta would rise above its original intent and come to symbolize and solidify the idea that rights for every individual should be so protected.

The main enduring ideas that would echo throughout the coming centuries are these:

“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

It was the use of the word “freeman” in the above clause, as opposed to “baron” or “lord”, that would cause the document to, in time, be interpreted to apply to all free individuals, whether common or noble.
Learn About Magna Carta’s Conservation Treatment

While the document had little effect in 1215, it was its reissuing in later years and the adoption of its principles and application to all that would help protect basic rights for all Englishman and give rise to the notion that no one, not even the monarch, is above the law.  Building upon this idea, it was the Magna Carta to which the American colonists looked when demanding their rights as British citizens, and eventually these rights would find their way into the founding documents of the United States.

The 1297 copy of the Magna Carta is on long-term loan to the Archives by its owner David Rubenstein.  As you enter the rotunda it is the first document you see before you get to the Declaration and the Constitution.  It is a fitting place for this wonderful piece of history since it did, in many ways, give clarity and precedent to the rights and liberties we enjoy today.

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