Magna Carta's 800th Birthday Week: Thirteenth Century Disruptive Innovation

As Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family visit Runnymede Meadow to re-pledge the Crown's subservience to the rule of law, Magna Carta turns 800 years old. Great Britain, the Commonwealth nations, the United States, and indeed all the world should celebrate Magna Carta's eight centuries. On June 15, 1215, abusive King John acceded to the reform demands of rebel barons. A humbled King John agreed to seal the Great Charter. By June 19, 1215, the final peace negotiations were completed, the barons re-pledged their loyalty to King John, and Magna Carta copies were penned and published.

As political history's most important "disruptive innovation," Magna Carta promised due process, judicial fairness, private property recognition, free merchant travel, and government ethics. Although the particulars remain important (and a quite readable English translation from the original Latin is provided by the British Library), the Great Charter more broadly symbolizes liberty secured through the rule of law.

Magna Carta led to England's development of representative government, and then its ideas and ideals were carried to the American colonies. During a subsequent revolt against the King (George III), the rights of Englishmen were re-declared by the 1776 Declaration of Independence to be the unalienable, Creator-endowed rights of all humankind. Magna Carta has been foundational to democracy's development and survival.

As President Franklin Roosevelt laid the foundation for America to join England's fight for democracy against fascism (almost a year before Japan's infamous Pearl Harbor attack), he stated: "The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. . . It was written in Magna Carta." [FDR's Third Inaugural Address, January 20, 1941]

U.S. Supreme Court opinions have cited the Magna Carta over 150 times, and odds are low that the Great Charter will again be cited in both majority and/or dissenting opinion(s) for this term's pending marriage cases -- Obergefell v. Hodges. Famously (and confusingly), Magna Carta famously referenced an issue of marriage equality: "No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of."

Through the American Bar Association's laudable work, lawyers and officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been commemorating Magna Carta's anniversary for the past year. Hundreds of American lawyers are at Runnymede and in London for the many parties. However, June 15th is just as worthy as July 4th for recognition by Americans. Magna Carta's 800 candles burn as bright as any fireworks display. In a commentary just published by Jurist, I argue that all Americans should join-in the celebration of Magna Carta's anniversary. It is difficult to overstate the Great Charter's "importance to our nation's revolutionary founding; to our Republic's constitutional framing; and to our people's ongoing faith in freedom under law:"

The 1787 Framers honored the Great Charter with the US Constitution's structure of separated powers and balanced federalism. Article I enumerated, and thus limited, the bicameral Congress's national legislative authority. And Article I also implemented novel restrictions on old, oft-practiced governmental abuses: no legislative punishments (attainders), no retroactive acts (ex post facto laws) and no unlimited confinements (habeas writ suspensions).


Thus the 1781 Bill of Rights takes Great Charter ideals for due process, jury trials, speedy trials, proportional punishment and property compensation. The 1215 baronial courage mustered to march on London and then personally confront King John's abuses with Magna Carter finds fitting tribute in the First Amendment's freedom-guarantees of religion, speech, association and grievance petitioning.

Victor Williams is an attorney in Washington D.C. and clinical assistant professor at Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. Victor Williams founded the American Institute for Disruptive Innovation in Law and Politics --