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An idea worth remembering

Here’s something to ponder if you need a reminder about the relative youth of this country’s founding tradition: This week marked the 800th anniversary of England’s King John putting his royal seal on the Magna Carta.

That doesn’t sound like much reason for fireworks, beer and meat-grilling, until you give it a bit of thought. The Magna Carta remains the basis for much of what we consider the rule of law. In fact, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas this week noted the anniversary from the bench.

That acknowledgment, noted in part by blogger and law professor Ann Althouse, reads, in part:



“The Due Process Clause has its origin in Magna Carta.

“As originally drafted, the Great Charter provided that “no freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be dis­seised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”



The message also notes that our own Fifth Amendment’s reference to “due process of law” comes straight from that document signed in 1215.

The idea of due process before the law hasn’t always been observed, of course.

According to a commemorative website, magnacarta800th.com, a predecessor to the Magna Carta a century before was largely forgotten by the time clergy and noblemen forced King John to the signing table. Pope Innocent III almost immediately annulled the document.



And, of course, our ideas of just who should be protected by the law of the land has expanded greatly over the centuries, from landed gentry and clergymen to, at least in this country, virtually everyone living within our borders.

But learning the lesson of the “Coronation Charter” of the 1100, copies of the Magna Carta were quickly distributed throughout England. And once an idea has been unleashed, it can be very hard to suppress.

So find a warm beer or a shot of gin this week and offer a toast to the courageous group that forced “the most evil monarch in Britain’s history” to put his seal to a document that still informs our ideas of law and freedom.


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