With the president and Congress out of town, Washington, D.C. is very quiet during the holidays, without the long lines one normally sees at museums and capitol attractions. So it was a good time last week to take my family to see a wonderful exhibit at the Library of Congress, jointly sponsored by the Federalist Society, of one of the only four existing manuscript copies of the 1215 Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymede.
On June 15, we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, one of the most consequential documents in the history of the law and liberty. It was the basis for establishing the principles that led to the many rights that we take almost for granted today. These include due process of law, the right to a jury trial, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, and the theory of representative government.
While Magna Carta only secured the rights of the barons and “freemen,” as the exhibit carefully explains, “this medieval charter, through centuries of interpretation and controversy, became an enduring symbol of liberty and the rule of law.”
It really is amazing as one walks through the exhibit and reads the translations of certain parts of Magna Carta, to see the principles being outlined that have become such an accepted part of our rule of law 800 years later. For example, Chapter 39 provides no freeman will be seized, dispossessed of his property, or harmed except “by the law of the land,” a phrase that eventually became “due process of law.” This very concept is incorporated in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee that no “freeman” in America can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”