Magna Carta

Turns out Magna Carta is not as significant as everyone thinks!

“Did Magna Carta make a difference?” [historian David] Carpenter asks. Most people, apparently, knew about it. In 1300, even peasants complaining against the lord’s bailiff in Essex cited it. But did it work? There’s debate on this point, but Carpenter comes down mostly on the side of the charter’s inadequacy, unenforceability, and irrelevance. It was confirmed nearly fifty times, but only because it was hardly ever honored. An English translation, a rather bad one, was printed for the first time in 1534, by which time Magna Carta was little more than a curiosity.

Then, strangely, in the seventeenth century Magna Carta became a rallying cry during a parliamentary struggle against arbitrary power, even though by then the various versions of the charter had become hopelessly muddled and its history obscured. Many colonial American charters were influenced by Magna Carta, partly because citing it was a way to drum up settlers. Edward Coke, the person most responsible for reviving interest in Magna Carta in England, described it as his country’s “ancient constitution.” He was rumored to be writing a book about Magna Carta; Charles I forbade its publication. Eventually, the House of Commons ordered the publication of Coke’s work. (That Oliver Cromwell supposedly called it “Magna Farta” might well be, understandably, the single thing about Magna Carta that most Americans remember from their high-school history class. While we’re at it, he also called the Petition of Right the “Petition of Shite.”) American lawyers see Magna Carta through Coke’s spectacles, as the legal scholar Roscoe Pound once pointed out. Nevertheless, Magna Carta’s significance during the founding of the American colonies is almost always wildly overstated. As cherished and important as Magna Carta became, it didn’t cross the Atlantic in “the hip pocket of Captain John Smith,” as the legal historian A. E. Dick Howard once put it. Claiming a French-speaking king’s short-lived promise to his noblemen as the foundation of English liberty and, later, of American democracy, took a lot of work.

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