The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Library of Congress shows how Magna Carta became a touchstone of constitutional law

(Lincoln Cathedral)

A yellowing piece of parchment covered in Latin, the Magna Carta now on view at the Library of Congress is as charming as a tax form. Hey, no one ever said cornerstones of constitutional law and civil liberty had to be pretty.

Magna Carta (experts drop the preceding “the”) got off to a rough start. When King John signed the “Great Charter” in 1215, on a field near London, he had no intention of appeasing its authors, barons who chafed at too-high taxes. But because they’d captured London, the king had no choice, says Nathan Dorn, curator of “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” a new exhibit at the Library of Congress.

The barons made at least 41 copies and sent them to every county in England. The document on view is one of four surviving copies; the original is lost.

The barons’ efforts were in vain. King John got the pope to void the charter, which sparked a civil war.

“On top of everything, Magna Carta was also a failed peace treaty,” Dorn says.

Despite its initial inefficacy, “Magna Carta is full of ideas that still live on in our public life and our constitutional jurisprudence,” Dorn says. “Our ideas of limited government, trial by jury, due process and the writ of habeas corpus are all part of a tradition that’s 800 years old.”

Magna Carta wasn’t signed into law until 1297, and its best-known provision, that “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,” was buried among laws like one banning fish traps on the Thames.

Over the next 400 years, the document’s importance waxed and waned. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that Magna Carta assumed its current stature.

During that time, legal scholar Edward Coke was looking for an ancient basis for limiting the power of the king, and he found it in Magna Carta, which he interpreted clause by clause in “The Second Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England.”

That pageturner became required reading for lawyers and impressed American revolutionaries; Thomas Jefferson’s copy is part of the exhibit.

Ideas from Coke’s interpretation found their way into the charters of American colonies and the U.S. Constitution.

For instance, a copy of 1672’s “The General laws and liberties of the Massachusetts Colony,” on view in the exhibit, references trial by jury, freedom from unlawful seizure of property and freedom from unlawful imprisonment.

Pre-Revolutionary War pamphleteers popularized Magna Carta, especially the clause that they read as guaranteeing no taxation without representation.

“To them, Magna Carta was about the dangers of tyrannical government and the obligation of the citizenry to stand up for their rights,” Dorn says.

Today, Magna Carta’s powers are largely symbolic. In England, only three of 37 clauses are in effect. Though it hasn’t had legal authority in the U.S. since the Revolutionary War, judges regularly cite it in their decisions.

“It is remarkable that so many ideas that remain in our constitutional law today can be traced to a document that was created nearly a millennium ago,” Dorn says.

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE; through Jan. 19, free.

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