This June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of what has become known as Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was a peace treaty that enumerated a list of baronial rights and civil prerogatives which the English noble class believed that the incumbent king, King John, had violated. The esteem that Magna Carta has acquired in the English and American political and cultural conscience has varied with time. Many Englishmen believed that Magna Carta did not go far enough in defining and asserting traditional English rights and liberties; others believed that the document was too overreaching in its limitations placed on the monarch’s royal prerogatives. Still others have correctly observed that the 1215 peace agreement fell apart almost immediately, and that it would still be several years until the propositions of Magna Carta became incorporated into English statute law, with only three of its clauses still in force today. Nevertheless there should be no doubt about the prominent role Magna Carta has played in the development of England’s unwritten constitution, as well as in the development of English attitudes regarding rights and privileges on both sides of the Atlantic. The issuing of Magna Carta stands as a watershed in the history of English jurisprudence, and the rights stated in the document provide a strong bulwark against arbitrary authority and despotism. As such, Magna Carta ought to be a point of pride for everyone of English descent, and the underlying principles should be reasserted as a rallying cry against the contemporary postmodern and anti-Christian conception of universal egalitarian “human rights.”
A Brief Historical Context
In June 1215, England’s embattled monarch found himself facing a full-scale rebellion from the English nobility. The dissatisfaction with John’s rule stemmed from several issues, including John’s penchant for pursuing the wives and daughters of noblemen, his disastrous wars to recover Angevin territory that he had lost in France, his taking hostages from the leading noble families of his kingdom, and his demands for taxes in the forms of fines for certain privileges and scutage. The confrontation between John and the English nobility was precipitated by John’s disastrous invasion of France in an attempt to reassert the control over western France that had been established under the Angevin dynasty from which John was descended. John’s combination of loose morals and foolish tactical decisions forced his confrontation with his frustrated nobility and earned him the moniker “Bad King John” by later generations. It was during this time that the peace agreement we now refer to as Magna Carta was struck in the small town of Runnymede outside of London.
The terms of the agreement were negotiated by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury famous for devising the modern division of the Bible into chapters, as well as William Marshal, whom Langton called “the greatest knight who ever lived.” A fascinating aspect of the history of Magna Carta is the manner in which its vaunted status has been augmented over the past several centuries to the extent that the Great Charter has received a near-mythical reputation. In truth, the immediate impact of the agreement between the king and barons was minimal. Neither the barons nor the king considered the treaty as binding, and King John immediately sought and procured the condemnation of the agreement from Pope Innocent III. Hostilities resumed within months, and several barons actively sought to promote the cause of Prince Louis, the heir to the Capetian throne of France, as a legitimate contender to the throne of England on account of his marriage to Blanche of Castile, the granddaughter of Henry II. It was during an invasion of French forces at the invitation of disgruntled barons that King John died, leaving his nine-year-old son Henry as his heir. A Capetian victory was all but certain.
Prior to his death, John came to repent of many of his sins and crimes that had plunged his kingdom into ruin, and made overtures to restore friendship with those he had wronged. One of these men was the ever faithful knight, William Marshal, whom John named as Henry’s guardian in his will. Marshal used his influence to make overtures of peace to the barons who had allied themselves to Prince Louis. Marshal reissued an amended and abbreviated Magna Carta in 1216, and many barons eventually returned to the fold of the Angevin dynasty. Years later, King Edward I incorporated Magna Carta into English statute law, and its contents were studied and applied by English jurists and legal historians for centuries. The modern numbering of the clauses of Magna Carta come from Sir William Blackstone’s 1759 edition. Among them are famous guarantees such as the protection against having one’s life or liberty deprived him without a trial of one’s peers. The enumeration of rights in the Magna Carta serves as a foundation for the English political tradition which was the basis for the formulation of the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution. Americans owe much to the Magna Carta’s barons and churchmen for the political rights and privileges that have been our birthright for generations.
The Relevance of Magna Carta Today
What importance does an 800-year-old document have today? Most of the clauses of the Magna Carta are no longer a part of the statute law of England, and the age in which we live is a much different one from the medieval world of our forebears. Many people view Magna Carta and the principles set forth therein to be little more than a museum piece. The development of what have come to be called “human rights” is thought to have progressed well beyond the archaic social institutions of our supposedly unenlightened medieval ancestors, but is this really the case? While there is no question that some of the clauses of Magna Carta are outdated and have been for several centuries, there is still much value that Magna Carta has to offer those of English descent. One is the value of having particular rights and privileges set forth for a particular time and a particular people in particular circumstances. Many contemporary academics and scholars criticize Magna Carta for its narrow scope.
It is argued that Magna Carta sets forth rights and privileges meant to protect the English nobility from potential abuses of crown authority when it is arbitrarily exercised. This is true, but this was all the document was intended for anyway. The barons and churchmen who drafted Magna Carta had no intentions of enumerating a list of political rights for all classes of people in England (although certain clauses do apply to all English subjects), let alone for all people everywhere. The barons themselves understood that the rights that they were claiming were not necessarily universal, and that other societies might not be particularly suited to the English polity. This is because different nations will always be naturally inclined to the various laws and customs that comport with their identity and character. The English Constitution, a loose and informal collection of customs, principles, and practices of which Magna Carta is a part, is suited to the English nation and those nations that derive their ancestry, history, and traditions from England. The modern error is to believe that we can delineate a universal set of legal rights and principles that apply to all people under all circumstances. Accordingly, the classic traditionalist Joseph de Maistre comments on the errors of the revolutionary French constitution of 1795:
I will simply point out the error of principle that has provided the foundation of this constitution and that has led the French astray since the first moment of their revolution. The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him. . . . This constitution is capable of being applied to all human communities from China to Geneva. But a constitution which is made for all nations is made for none: it is a pure abstraction, a school exercise whose purpose is to exercise the mind in accordance with a hypothetical ideal, and which ought to be addressed to Man, in the imaginary places which he inhabits. . . . What is a constitution? Is it not the solution to the following problem: to find the laws that are fitting for a particular nation, given its population, its customs, its religion, its geographical situation, its political relations, its wealth, and its good and bad qualities?1
This is not to say that there are no rights common to mankind as a whole. Those rights that are truly universal are derived from the reciprocal responsibilities of the second table of the Decalogue, which enumerates our responsibilities in regards to how we treat others. For example, everyone has the right to life because of the universal prohibition on murder, and everyone has the right to property because of the universal prohibition against theft. Beyond these basic and fundamental rights, civil rights and privileges can vary from time to time and from nation to nation. The modern attempt to create a universal standard of “human rights” beyond what is revealed to us by God has created an egalitarian order that seeks to strip away all particulars that make one of us human in an attempt to make each and every person the same or equal. Ehud is right: “human rights” are inhuman. Many will celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta only because of the belief that Magna Carta was a preliminary salvo that led us to the concept of universal egalitarian rights so lauded by the West’s prevailing leftist establishment. The reality is the converse: Magna Carta is a monument to the ethic of ordered hierarchy that made Western civilization great.
While many today view the world and ethics of Magna Carta as backward and archaic, the reality is that the values of the contemporary West should be, and by God’s grace one day will be, viewed as obscene. It is we rather than the early-thirteenth-century English barons who live in a backwards and superstitious society. Our superstitions include the belief that the white race is rapaciously evil and has brought grave suffering upon the world and must be marginalized and eventually eradicated. Another superstition is the belief that there are no differences among the races of mankind, and that mass immigration and racial displacement for whites should be of no concern, since we are being replaced by people who are essentially the same as us. Today Western politicians and bureaucrats will invite non-white immigrants into their homelands and allow them to rape our women, often with impunity. Now Sweden has passed a law making criticism of immigration or of Sweden’s immigration policy a criminal offense, with other leftist regimes throughout Europe and North America sure to follow. It goes without saying that our concept of rights has taken giant leaps backwards since the famous summit of king and nobility at Runnymede. For this reason it is entirely appropriate to appreciate Magna Carta as a milestone of true liberty that we have inherited from our European ancestors.
Our task today is to reject the idea of Magna Carta as a relic of the past struggle for liberty which culminates in our egalitarian abstractions, and instead to celebrate our inherited legal tradition as one that is good, just, and prudent. Written documents are useful in that they provide a record of agreed-upon standards and practices, but they are powerless to enforce themselves. The constant usurpations of our politicians and bureaucrats against the limitations placed on their powers set forth in the U.S. Constitution is proof enough of this fact. We owe it to our praiseworthy ancestors not simply to admire their hard-fought achievements as one might admire the caged animals at a zoo, but to carry on their work and turn our heritage into a legacy for our children and descendants. Perhaps we need a new charter of rights for our people suited to our present circumstances, a charter in which we assert that we have a right and a duty to exist. We will not commit suicide; neither will we slip away quietly into the night in the face of our enemies. We who are descended from the nations of the West have a right to our own historic homelands in Europe and the Americas. We have a right to our own culture, art, music, architecture, and literature, all of which we will celebrate without shame or apology. In summary, we have a right to be who we are, just as it is for all the nations God has fashioned from Adam. This is to be our destiny, and that is surely something worthy of celebration!
- Joseph de Maistre, Considérations sur la France (1797). http://counterenlightenment.blogspot.com/2011/07/well-known-quotation-from-joseph-de.html ↩