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The Magna Carta has become known as the first successful attempt on limiting the powers of a ruling authority by citizens under the authority. The document, signed by King John of England in the presence of witnesses, gave more freedom for the people of England in later years.
The documents in the Magna Carta set course for development of human rights and empowered parliament in the making of decisions. In the US, the founding fathers used the Magna Carta as a reference point when formulating the American constitution. This article entails a brief history on the source of the Magna Carta and details on its influence in American Law.
The Magna Carta was first drafted by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop who was perceived as one of the most influential Barons in England. The document was previously known as the “articles of the Barons’, as it was drawn to reflect the discontent of Barons in light of King John’s rule (Clanchy 141).
The document has also been referred to as the Great Charter or Magna Charter. The charter aimed to award more freedom to the non-serf community in the country, and thereby reduce the arbitrary powers of the king. It could be viewed as the first step to establish a constitution within a country. King John was reluctant to sign the charter into law since his powers would be reduced. The charter also set a foundation for the establishment of parliament.
Several events led to the signing of the Magna Carta. In the year 1205, King John of England had a disagreement with Pope Innocent III on who would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, whereby the king swore that the pope’s candidate would never be allowed into England (Holt 107).
As a result, Pope Innocent III excommunicated the king and banned church services in England. King John also levied high taxes on the citizens of the land, whenever such money was required. The Magna Carta came into effect in the year 1215, and was reissued with a shorter version in 1227 by King Henry III (Danziger and Gillingham 278).
Influence on past and current American law
The statute held in the Great Charter of 1297 set the pace for the development of citizen rights in England. Due to the close connections between England and America, documents citing English liberties would also influence American liberties. Article 21 of the United States Constitution states, “That no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” As such, the US constitution has become the supreme law of the land.
The most important aspect of the Magna Carta is that it placed everybody under the rule of the law, or as stated in the document, the rue of the land. This enabled greater justice and fairness in the country since the law would be effected for all members if society, thererby abolishing the norm of the class system.
The Magna Carta contained elements of English common law and a few other new laws, which were used by Americans when designing their own constitution. In its scope, the Magna Carta later developed to recognize all English in its statement of “any freemen”, the same way as the American constitution applies to all Americans in the phrase “we the people”.
Certain provisions in the Magna Carta required for the preservation of the rights awarded to citizens. In this case, the Magna Carta specified that subsequent alterations of the law should not cancel out rights of the English citizens. America uses such provisions from the Magna Carta in the formulation of laws by ensuring that new laws do not negatively affect the rights of the citizens.
This fact is entrenched in the Ninth amendment to the constitution, stating, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Magna Carta limited the slightest of changes in its wording, just as the American constitution requires that only a majority vote can amend a previous law.
Another key influence of the Magna Carta is evidenced in the Bill of Rights, for instance in the Fifth Amendment (the Suspension Clause), which states, “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
The Magna Carta had previously declared,”No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned…or in any other way destroyed…except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.” This was therefore the reference point of the Fifth Amendment.
Although the Magna Carta was not intended to be universally democratic by the barons who designed it, the document became an integral part of the British constitution, and later the American constitution. By limiting the power of the king to raise taxes, the founding fathers adopted this idea when developing a revenue system that would suit the country. The president of the United States of America is not allowed to arbitrarily raise taxes or spend money at his discretion. The President has to explain to congress why the government should implement certain policies while congress votes on the proposed policy.
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The Magna Carta set a foundation for an appropriate legal system. Just as the king of England was under the rule of the land, the American president would also be under the rule of the new constitution. The Magna Carta imposed that crime offenders be fined according to their capacity to pay such fines, and that no one should be condemned without through judgment of peers and law.
The American constitution requires that suspects be tried in a court of law before they are declared guilty or otherwise, in the presence of a group of peers, or trial by jury as interpreted from the Magna Carta.
The American revolt against the British was as a result for what the Americans believed was an infringement of the rights awarded to them by the Magna Carta. An interpretation by Sir Edward Coke argued that the Magna Carta provided the same rights for all Englishmen, whether in England or in America (Linebaugh 113-114).
Another justification for the rebellion was as an argument against the taxes imposed by parliament in England, to which the Americans argued that it was taxation policy without representation. Americans believed that they should be free to rule themselves, just as the Magna Carta had enabled then formation of parliament in Britain, thereby allowing for self governance.
Significance of the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta was the first written document citing the laws of the land and their application. Governments around the world have established written constitutions which specify the governing and application of law n their jurisdictions. The Magna Carta also gave way for the development of the basic human rights as championed by organizations such as the United Nations and the United States (Flood 31).
The notion of a speedy and unbiased trial, as stipulated by the Magna Carta, called for an effective judicial system. Another great contribution of the Magna Carta was the idea of majority rule. This has allowed for good governance of the United States by allowing citizens to vote their leaders and the elected leader will be the one with majority votes. This concept also dominates the Congress in the development of new laws.
The Magna Carta made a couple of significant contributions to the United States constitution. As noted, the chapter on the Bill of Rights draws heavily from the Magna Carta by emphasizing on the equality of the citizens (Turner 39-40). All Americans, including the President are liable under law for breach of the constitution.
The American constitution is the Supreme Law of the land. While individual states within the United States of America may enforce their own laws, such laws should not contravene provisions in the United States of America Constitution.
The Magna Carta was the source of English law, and later American law (Thompson 9-10). It also provided protection of the citizens from adverse policies formulated by people in authority while its legacy lies in the empowering of individuals by its protection of human rights. The provision of “due process” of law was previously aimed at providing checks on powers of the king, while the same currently implies checks within the government system.
The supremacy clause, embedded in the constitution, provides that there is a higher law that applies to everyone in the country, including the executive and the legislature, just as the king could be liable for breach of common law as implied by the Magna Carta. The bill of rights and other provisions that are based on the Magna Carta are enforced by the Supreme Court.
Clanchy, Micheal. A History Of England: Early Medieval England. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 1997. Print
Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham. 1215: The Year of Magna Carta. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print
Flood, Patrick James. The effectiveness of UN human rights institutions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. 1998. Print
Holt, James Clarke. The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Print
Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. Print
Thompson, Faith. Magna Carta – Its Role in the Making of the English Constitution. 1300–1629. New York: Read Books, 2008. Print
Turner, Ralph V. Magna Carta: through the ages. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2003. Print.