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Opening Arguments


Two views of the Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which was yesterday. One, hey, let's stop revering the stupid thing. For one thig, it didn't actually work. For another, it wasn't actually "the first of its kind," but one of many documents from that era codifying limitations on government power. Finally, it wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of liberty, considering it protected only men of the noblity and wasn't exactly kind to Jews.

Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States: It is old, it is English and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke to fit current needs. A century ago, Samuel Gompers referred to the Clayton Act as a Magna Carta for labor; more recently the National Environmental Protection Act has been called an “environmental Magna Carta.” Judges, too, cite Magna Carta with increasing frequency, in cases ranging from Paula Jones’s suit against Bill Clinton to the pleas of Guantánamo detainees. Tea Party websites regularly invoke it in the battle against Obamacare.

Americans aren’t alone in revering Magna Carta. Mohandas K. Gandhi cited it in arguing for racial equality in South Africa. Nelson Mandela invoked it at the trial that sent him to prison for 27 years. We are not the only ones, it seems, willing to stretch old legal texts beyond their original meaning. Like the Holy Grail, the myth of Magna Carta seems to matter more than the reality.

But that misses a big point. Or, rather, it hits a big point that he doesn't realize is a big point. It's the very fact that it has been revered through the centuries that still gives it relevance today.

Yet for all its medieval quirkiness, Magna Carta has a universalist heart that still beats today. It articulates the human desire for freedom so powerfully that some of its clauses sound as relevant, and urgent, to our ears now as they must have done to the barons, abbots and royals who witnessed the king’s sealing of Magna Carta in a field near Windsor on 15 June 1215. Indeed, these clauses would provide the foundation stone of the revolutions and constitutions that shaped the modern, democratic era, not just in Britain but in the US, France, and elsewhere. Even as far afield as China, democracy-seeking dissidents cite this dusty document sealed by an English king 800 years ago.

[. . .]

The most important thing about Magna Carta is how it was interpreted, and acted upon, by future generations, particularly by the revolutionaries of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If Magna Carta planted the seed of an ideal that would radically reshape human affairs — that sometimes the state must be restrained in order to allow the flourishing of individual life and liberty — it was Magna Carta’s fans in subsequent decades who watered that seed, demanding that this ideal be spread beyond barons to all men, and eventually all people.

Even given that many seeds might have been planted in that era, this is the one that took root. The whole concept of rights inhering in the individual, as the Founders understood it, grew from the Magna Carta. Ignoring that while juding it with today's standards instead of accepting it as a document of its time is to be pathologically pedantic. It's like arguing about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays while losing sight of what magnificent works of art they are.

But, then again, just 'nother dead white guy we probably shouldn't be teaching anyway.