Thursday, June 15, 2006

Magna Carta

Today is Thursday, 15 June 2006.

This day in 1215, an assemblage of the feudal barons of England, having been vexed by the martial shortcomings, profligate spending, and consequent heavy taxation of King John of England, and having seized London five days before, met with the King in the meadow at Runnymede, there forcing him to affix his seal to the “Articles of the Barons”, the document known to history as Magna Carta, the Great Charter. In return, they renewed their oaths of feudal allegiance.

Contrary to popular belief, Magna Carta (hereafter M.C.) is not the first English document of its type, for much of its text is copied directly from the Charter of Liberties of Henry I from 1100. M.C. is not even, in reality, the document of 1215, for it was reaffirmed, e.g., in 1225 and 1297, the form most familiar today as the “original.” (M.C. is actually a series or collection of documents subsumed under a common name.)

Much myth has attached to Magna Carta, as one might expect, since it is a profoundly political document, that is, the record at a particular moment in space and time of the correlations of power existing among elites. As the political struggles developed, each fraction of the elites, and then also the common people, affected to see in M.C. the irrefutable proof of the justice of their respective causes.

In reality and myth, it would probably be not stretching the point to say that M.C. is a landmark in at least three areas: establishing boundaries for principles of taxation, a rudimentary sense of due process of law, and separation of the government from the person of the monarch.

Nor surprisingly, all three are still hot potatos.

For example, whenever the majesty of that moth-eaten abstraction, “The Presidency”, is invoked as reason blindly to submit to the judgments, whims, and demands of a particular president, we regress to the time when “divine right of kings” could be intoned with a straight face.

When a president asserts that his wartime powers (in a time of Constitutionally undeclared war!) are unlimited, and thus include the faculty of detaining all he deems “unlawful combatants” for an indefinite period, we hear the echo of ancient despots proclaiming sovereign immunity from even the most cursory of judicial consideration of all claims of habeas corpus.

When a president decrees that it doesn't matter what the Judicial branch rules that the Legislative branch intended when it enacted a law, that the only thing which matters is what the president chooses ... it is time to bring that president to Runnymede.

It is the oldest trick in the books of kings: your freedom and security are in danger, surrender them to me, only I can keep them safe. But the truly mortal perils are always in palaces.

Magna Carta is best seen as a waystation, important but not always defining, in the continuous struggle to assert and ensure human freedom over and against tyrants.


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