Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 16th 2015 Contents A36
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Tuesday, June 16, 2015
It is relatively unsplashy, as these
things go---not very long, not very
elegantly written, just 3,500 or so
words of Medieval Latin crammed
illegibly onto a single page of parch-
But Magna Carta, presented by 40
indignant English barons to their
treacherous king in the 13th century,
has endured ever since as perhaps
the world s first and best declaration
of the rule of law, a thrilling instance
of a people s limiting a ruler s power
by demanding rights for themselves.
In the United States, Magna Carta---
it means Great Charter in Latin---is
treated with a reverence bordering
on worship by many legislators, schol-
ars and judges.
It is considered the basis for many
of the principles that form the Con-
stitution and Bill of Rights.
And as a measure of how exciting
an old piece of paper can be, in 2007
the billionaire philanthropist David
M Rubenstein paid US$21.3 million
to buy a (somewhat later) version of
it and then put it on permanent loan
to the National Archives, where any-
one can see it on display.
On Monday, Magna Carta s 800th
birthday was observed with an extrav-
agant ceremony in Runnymede, the
meadow near Windsor where King
John of England capitulated to the
barons demands and affixed his royal
seal to the original document all those
The event featured, among other
things, a group of 500 American
lawyers travelling with the American
Bar Association, a host of England s
foremost jurists and scholars and---
as a sign of how far monarchs have
come since medieval times---Queen
Elizabeth II, attending not on suffer-
ance, but of her own free will.
"The events of 800 years ago
marked the commencement of a
major undertaking in human history,"
Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr said
in a recent address.
The renowned English judge Lord
Denning called Magna Carta "the
greatest constitutional document of
all times---the foundation of the free-
dom of the individual against the
arbitrary authority of the despot."
Amid all the celebrating, the years
of planning, of conferences, exhibits,
speeches, papers, symposia and
encomia extolling Magna Carta, it
might seem churlish to take another
But there are some legal scholars
who believe that the charter is actually
not such a big deal.
Our adulation of it, they say, comes
from what we believe it to have
been in hindsight---not what it
was at the time.
According to this argument,
even the notion that Magna Carta
established many of Western
democracies most dearly held
rights, like the right to trial by
jury and the right not to be
imprisoned arbitrarily by the
state, is a misreading of history.
"The myth of Magna Carta lies
at the whole origin of our per-
ception of who we are as an Eng-
lish-speaking people, freedom-
loving people who ve lived with
a degree of liberty and under a
rule of law for 800 years," said
Nicholas Vincent, a professor at
the University of East Anglia and
the author of Magna Carta: A
Very Short Introduction.
"It s a load of tripe, of course.
But it s a very useful myth."
For one thing, as Jill Lepore
pointed out recently in The New
Yorker, the original Magna Carta
in fact lived a short life and died
an obscure death.
It was not seen at the time as
marking a great moment in dem-
ocratic history. Nobody had a
chance to follow any of its pro-
Almost immediately after
agreeing to it, King John prevailed
on the pope to annul it. (In an
instance of, perhaps, poetic jus-
tice, John died of dysentery
Also, it was a narrowly fash-
ioned agreement between a small
group of privileged people and
monarch; there was no mention
of regular people or of democracy
as we know it.
The original Magna Carta
became the basis for a number
of successive agreements over
the years, signed again and again
by various kings, culminating in
a more definitive 1297 version,
one of whose copies Rubenstein
bought for the National Archives.
But it was not until centuries
later that Magna Carta was res-
urrected, reinterpreted and held
up as a great symbol of the rule
It was invoked in the early days
of the American colonies, again
during the drafting of the Con-
stitution, and countless times
"It s one of the many, many
things in the Anglo-American
legal tradition that will eventually
Magna Carta, still posing a challenge at 800
A photo of a 1297 version of Magna Carta. Some legal scholars believe that the
charter is actually not such a big deal. AP PHOTO
"The myth of Magna Carta lies at the whole
origin of our perception of who we are as an
English-speaking people, freedom-loving
people who've lived with a degree of liberty
and under a rule of law for 800 years."
Nicholas Vincent, a professor at the University of East Anglia
and the author of Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.
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