By many measures, democracy began exactly 800 years ago on Monday.
Monday, June 15 marks that 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a British legal document that laid the foundation for some of the key principles of democracy.
The document outlined and established an important democratic principle — due process.
“The body of a free man is not to be arrested, or imprisoned, or [deprived of land], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined, nor is the king to go against him or send forcibly against him, except by judgment of his peers or by the law of the land,” the document states, curbing the king’s ability to arbitrarily jail dissidents.
Signed in the riverside town of Runnymede in 1215, the document later referred to as the “Great Charter” put in place the first major legal restrictions on the British monarchy. It also laid the groundwork for many important democratic documents to follow, including the US Constitution.
“The Magna Carta is the first rung on the ladder to freedom, followed by the great American charters of freedom — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and The Gettysburg Address,” Vice Chairman of Sotheby’s David Redden has said. “This document symbolises mankind’s eternal quest for freedom; it is a talisman of liberty.”
Unsurprisingly, the document wasn’t originally all that idealistic. In 1215, the spiteful English King John decided to meet with disgruntled barons who were upset that the monarchy could arbitrarily change their taxes. Sensing weakness in the throne, the barons rebelled and captured London earlier in the year. They all agreed to negotiate the truce at Runnymede.
Although the law only applied to noblemen at the time and didn’t really take effect for decades, this passage represented a huge shift from the idea that justice is derived from a leader to the idea that justice is derived from the law.
Not everyone is convinced the Magna Carta is as influential as government officials and high school history teachers make it out to be. As the New Yorker notes, the Magna Carta wasn’t particularly enforceable — kings continued to trample over rights outlined in the document for years.
On Monday, Foreign Policy editor David Rothkop pointed out that the Magna Carta wasn’t even the first major democratic document.
Magna Carta hoopla is anglo-centric myth building. 200 yrs before Swedes asserted people not king held power. Iceland 90 yrs before that.
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) June 15, 2015
Despite debate over the document’s legitimacy, the Magna Carta has another legacy that many people on both sides of the argument can agree on. As the Independent notes, the Magna Carta established a standardised measurement for beer to keep buyers from being swindled by merchants.
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