It was 800 years ago this past June that King John and his entourage met with a group of disaffected barons at Runnymede, a water meadow on the south bank of the Thames between the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the barons’ camp at Staines. As the historian Jeremy Black shows in his essay below, the document provisionally adopted at that convocation, known throughout the world as Magna Carta, “the Great Charter,” is a founding testament in the long, hard, and circuitous development of political liberty.
Most of the original Magna Carta, which was revised and reissued many times in subsequent years, pertained chiefly to the depredations of King John, known to every school child in his previous incarnation as the evil Prince John, the cruel and greedy enemy of the people (and brother of the noble Richard the Lionheart) and the bane of Robin Hood. But beyond its local application to a wayward king, Magna Carta has emerged as a beacon of liberty because of its rudimentary affirmation of certain basic principles that people living in democratic societies take for granted—the principle of habeas corpus, for example, which aims to protect citizens against unlawful detention and imprisonment. Above all, Magna Carta affirmed the principle that the law applied to everyone, even to the monarch: “We will sell to no man,” Clause 40 declared, “we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.” So it is that the majestic figure of Justice decorating our courts has traditionally appeared blindfolded and holding a scale. Justice doesn’t peek to see who is seeking redress. She doesn’t have her thumb on the scales to please her favorites. So far as is humanly possible, that figure implies, the law will be applied impartially to all equally without regard to rank or wealth, patronage or political connection.
Political liberty, however, is a fragile achievement, ever beset by the claims of privilege, undermined by enthusiasts of all persuasions. It is also difficult to discuss candidly, for even describing its usurpations seems provocative to partisans on the other side, who see no abridgement of liberty but merely business as usual if not, indeed, the extension of their ideas of virtuous order. The trouble is that it is much easier to lose than to forge political liberty. The price of its maintenance is constant vigilance. The price of its recapture when once lost is generally a far messier business.
Let us leave our own situation to one side and recall a detail from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. After the revolution, the ringleaders, the pigs Napoleon and Snowball, had seven commandments inscribed on the wall of the big barn, beginning with
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend
and ending with
7. All animals are equal.
As the years passed, however, many things changed at Animal Farm. A couple of the more pacific animals noticed that the pigs had taken to walking on their hind legs and that those who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters. It was at about that time that the seven commandments mysteriously disappeared and were replaced with just one: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Orwell meant Animal Farm to be an allegory about Soviet Communism, an illustration of how revolutionary enthusiasm regularly turns rancid and fosters new forms of tyranny. On this 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it is worth stepping back not only to pay homage to the freedoms it anticipated but also to acknowledge the losses it has recently endured.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 1, on page 1
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