Magna Carta

January 2, 2015

This year the Magna Carta, a failed treaty between medieval combatants, is 800 years old. Especially in America it is seen as the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon world. But, is that view justified?

The Magna Carta was a very short-lived admission of rights by King John to his subject nobility, the barons. John refuted its provisions immediately stating that he had signed under duress. All these players were the descendants of the Norman conquerors who had taken over the country following their invasion of 1066. In doing so, they had replaced the Saxon nobles and with them the custom of electing their King. The document, in a much weaker format, was last reaffirmed in 1625 and then went dormant.

At the onset of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, a barrister, judge, and opposition politician, was looking for arguments against the oppressive rule of the Stuarts. Not surprisingly, he found support in the Magna Carta and interpreted its provisions liberally. Of course Coke had the benefit of hindsight and that of the new thinking that had entered England during the preceding one hundred years or more. But, since foreign laws carried no weight, he had to rely on English law to make his case.

The age of immigration into America had started and, in the following century, English subjects relocated across the Atlantic and took their perceptions with them. Inevitably, the belief in the importance of the Magna Carta is the result of Anglo-Saxon historical sources, which, by its very nature, is inward looking. That fact is not surprising if one realizes that Anglo-Saxon history was, and still is, written by historians who have little knowledge of any language other than English and are therefore confined to sources in that language. You cannot do what you do not know.

What then is the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon world? This is much of the subject of a new book, MANY HEADS AND MANY HANDS, James Madison’s Search for a More Perfect Union, by the Dutch/American author, Mau VanDuren. In his time-spanning narrative he follows the concepts of rule of law, democracy, and liberty from their early roots. He visits the movers and shakers who advocated and implemented these concepts as an answer to the unique problems of their day. The first ever national document that incorporated these values is known as the Great Privilege. Drafted and signed in 1477 it describes the relationship between states and their ruler, Duchess Mary of Burgundy. The various states were the provinces of the Netherlands, not nobles. In turn these states were represented by delegates from their cities who, in turn were elected by (mostly wealthy) citizens. The document in effect grants “no taxation without representation;” it spells out the rights of the states and cities to maintain their laws, privileges, and customs; citizens have the right to be tried under the laws of their state only; it awards rights regarding life and liberty. These articles, and a number of others, raise the document to the level of a constitution.

The concepts thus enshrined became a part of standard Dutch governance that was perpetuated in the Dutch Republic. The reformation, and the Narrow Sea between England and the Netherlands, helped transfer these notions to England. During England’s bouts of religious strife many of its thinkers such as John Locke vacated to the Netherlands to return after many years. Eventually William of Orange invaded England to become King William III with his spouse Queen Mary in 1689. This is, not incidentally, the year that the Bill of Rights was passed and that the Parliament became permanent (it could no longer be sent home by the king). Soon after, the Tolerance Act granted religious tolerance (which was somewhat limited and far from religious freedom as enacted in the Dutch Republic).

Earlier English Separatists had fled to Leiden in the province of Holland (1609/10) where they gained many insights in democratic governance and religious freedom. These same people migrated to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts (1621) and instituted a separation of church and state, secular marriage, and religious freedom. We know them as the Pilgrims. Later immigrants from England known as the Puritans opposed these notions. The difference of opinion was logical. The Pilgrims came from the Netherlands where they had learned to appreciate these values. The Puritans came from a country where such freedoms did not exist.

In conclusion we can suspect that most of the values that Americans hold dear are not necessarily Anglo-Saxon unless one expands the definition to include the Netherlands (which then, importantly, included present day Belgium).