In 1215, a band of rebellious medieval barons forced King John of England to agree to a laundry list of concessions later called the Great Charter, or in Latin, Magna Carta. Centuries later, America’s Founding Fathers took great inspiration from this medieval pact as they forged the nation’s founding documents—including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
For 18th-century political thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Magna Carta was a potent symbol of liberty and the natural rights of man against an oppressive or unjust government. The Founding Fathers’ reverence for Magna Carta had less to do with the actual text of the document, which is mired in medieval law and outdated customs, than what it represented—an ancient pact safeguarding individual liberty.
“For early Americans, Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence were verbal representations of what liberty was and what government should be—protecting people rather than oppressing them,” says John Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Much in the same way that for the past 100 years the Statue of Liberty has been a visual representation of freedom, liberty, prosperity and welcoming.”
When the First Continental Congress met in 1774 to draft a Declaration of Rights and Grievances against King George III, they asserted that the rights of the English colonists to life, liberty and property were guaranteed by “the principles of the English constitution,” a.k.a. Magna Carta. On the title page of the 1774 Journal of The Proceedings of The Continental Congress is an image of 12 arms grasping a column on whose base is written “Magna Carta.”
Rights of Life, Liberty and Property
Of the 60-plus clauses contained in Magna Carta, only a handful are relevant to the 18th-century American experience. Those include passages that guarantee the right to a trial by a jury, protection against excessive fines and punishments, safeguarding of individual liberty and property, and, perhaps most importantly, the forbidding of taxation without representation.
The two most-cited clauses of Magna Carta for defenders of liberty and the rule of law are 39 and 40:
39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
The Founding Fathers credited the 39th clause as the origin of the idea that no government can unjustly deprive any individual of “life, liberty or property” and that no legal action can be taken against any person without the “lawful judgement of his equals,” what would later become the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers.
The last phrase of clause 39, “by the law of the land,” set the standard for what is now known as due process of law.
“Magna Carta’s dominance was so great that its phraseology, ‘by the law of the land,’ was used in all American documents prior to the Constitution,” says Kaminski. “Not until James Madison introduced ‘due process’ at the national level in 1789 was it included in the 5th Amendment and later in the 14th Amendment.”
Writing in The Federalist Papers, James Madison explicitly referenced the 40th clause of Magna Carta when he wrote, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
No Taxation Without Representation
Other rights and protections enshrined by Magna Carta are less explicit. The protection against taxation without representation, it’s argued, comes from clause 12 of Magna Carta, which reads:
12. No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.
At the time of Magna Carta’s writing, barons were chafing against specific fees levied by the crown and feudal lords. The text doesn’t explicitly call out taxation or elected representatives, because those concepts didn’t exist in the 13th century. But the Founding Fathers drew symbolic spirit from Magna Carta through 18th-century eyes.
That spirit is clearly present in the Declaration of Independence, which used Magna Carta as a model for free men petitioning a despotic government for their God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founding Fathers were reacting to decades of abuses by the British Parliament, which colonists believed had betrayed the “higher law” of Magna Carta.
“The Americans saw themselves as very conservative rebels,” Kaminski says. “They were trying to preserve their constitutional rights, not to overthrow a government.”
The influence of Magna Carta was surely felt at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the principles of due process and individual liberty fought for in the Revolutionary War were enshrined into law.
Magna Carta's Legacy in the Bill of Rights
There are some clear echoes of Magna Carta in the body of the Constitution itself. Article III, Section 2 guarantees a jury trial in all criminal trials (except impeachment). And Article 1, Section 9 forbids the suspension of habeas corpus, which essentially means that no one can be held or imprisoned without legal cause.
But Magna Carta’s legacy is reflected most clearly in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution ratified by the states in 1791. In particular, amendments five through seven set ground rules for a speedy and fair jury trial, and the Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and fines. That last prohibition can be traced directly back to the 20th clause of Magna Carta:
20. For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.
But perhaps the greatest influence of Magna Carta on the Founding Fathers was their collective understanding that in drafting the U.S. Constitution they were attempting to create a Magna Carta for a new era.
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” says Kaminski. “They didn’t know if it would succeed or if it would last for centuries, but they were doing the best they could.”