An article by Heather Whipps on the impact of the Magna Carta on English law prompts reflection on the current political scene.
For those who may not be familiar with this document, Whipps provides a brief history:
Feudalism was the framework by which all landowning was governed in England during medieval times. It essentially granted the king control of all the land in his kingdom, which was worked by peasants and overseen by feudal barons. Everyone in the hierarchy had financial and social responsibilities to the rank above them, including the barons, who reported directly to the king.
Most of England’s kings didn’t exercise all of their feudal rights, such as the power to control who their tenants married. That wasn’t the case, however, with King John, the ruler fictionalized as the bad guy in “Robin Hood.” John’s abuses of the feudal system were frequent and angered the barons, who were regularly extorted of their lands and profits.
Fed up, in 1215 the barons rebelled and pressured the king into signing the Magna Carta, a list of 63 clauses drawn up to limit John’s power. It was the first time royal authority officially became subject to the law, instead of reigning above it.
Whipps goes on to describe the influence of this groundbreaking document on later English law, and eventually the U. S. Constitution.
The key point to notice here is the principle that, as described in the American Declaration of Independence, men are created with “certain inalienable rights,” rights that derive from their free moral nature as human beings, not from the arbitrary whims of kings. We have these rights, not because a benevolent government grants them to us, but because of what we are. The recognition of these transcendent rights has been enshrined in English and American law for centuries, and has played a key role in our history as a free and prosperous people.
Today, however, Americans — largely ignorant of this history — are slowly surrendering their rights back to their rulers. More and more we are turning to the government to fix our problems and right our wrongs. We are quite happy to let the government punish others, if it gives us some sense of “justice,” not realizing that some day that same power will be used against us, for much the same reason. We are returning to the medieval order of things, where human rights are gifts of the king, to be dispensed as his royal highness deems fit.
At some point, we may, like the barons of 1215, get fed up and confront our government with another Magna Carta, demanding that it respect the human rights it has so willingly taken over.