New York City high school students were recognized Monday for their achievements in the annual legal essay writing contest sponsored by the New York City Bar Association and the New York Law Journal. An essay about the Magna Carta from Benjamin Pulatove, third from left, a sophomore from Townsend Harris High School in Queens, is published here. From left, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Robert Miller, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and Law Journal Managing Editor Rebecca Baker. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
During the early 13th century, King John reigned tyrannically over Great Britain. He conducted many unsuccessful conquests in an attempt to return land taken by France, demanding more taxes and soldiers as time went on, abandoning the custom to consult the barons of the land and seizing the land of barons who did not comply.
King John also disagreed with the Pope over who should succeed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading the Pope to excommunicate the king and terminate all church services within England. The situation changed only after King John declared England a fief of the Pope and “rented” the land annually for great sums of money (“Meeting at Runnymede: The Story of King John and Magna Carta”). These actions resulted in an insurrection by the barons to restrict the power of their king in a document they named the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, consisting of 63 clauses that may not be revoked by the monarch, featuring famous concepts such as habeas corpus and due process (What is Magna Carta?). Despite its simple purpose of solving a dispute between King John and the barons of England, the Magna Carta proved essential in the establishment and development of the United States.
In 1775, many Americans believed that the situation in the 13th century was repeating itself with a new tyrannical king. The Magna Carta and its principle of restricting a monarch’s power resounded powerfully with the colonists, and the document even grew to become part of the design for the seal of Massachusetts. Many Magna Carta ideas, such as the idea that all free men would experience the same liberties, franchises and immunities as the English, echoed in the charters of all the colonies.
Likewise, Clause 61 of the Magna Carta, or the “security clause,” declared that the people may overrule their king if he did not abide by the laws set forth, a statement that clearly supported the revolutionaries of the time.
Moreover, the idea of a “fundamental law,” that could not be altered by the government was an important concept utilized by the founding fathers when drafting both state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution, as well as the 39th Clause’s idea that in the history of the planet, “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” (“The Magna Carta (The Great Charter).”)
As America developed, the Magna Carta’s influence was still exceptional. The legal system notably followed the principles detailed in Clause 39 and the Clause 40, which said that “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”
After the Civil War, the idea of equal liberties would truly begin to be applied to all American people, including former slaves, with three new amendments, one of which echoed the familiar thought that state governments may not deny “any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws.”
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the principle of protecting the people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness from poverty and unemployment to support the New Deal’s goal of reducing the economic power held by corporations. In 1937, the same idea would support the Wagner Act, which protected the right of workers to organize union and collectively bargain.
As recently as 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Boumediene v. Bush expressed the importance of providing suspicious individuals with the basic right of habeas corpus, even during times of war (Turner).
Therefore, it is clear that the seemingly simple and randomly written demands of barons in response to King John’s poor leadership succeeded in planting the seeds that would shape American society centuries later.
“Meeting at Runnymede: The Story of King John and Magana Carta.” Magna Carta. Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2015
“The Magna Cara (The Great Charter).” Constitution Society. National Public Telecomputing Network, 25 Sept. 1995. Web. 12 Apr. 2015
Turner, Ralph V. “The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215.” History Today 53.9 (2003): n. pag. Web. 12 Apr. 2015
What Is Magna Carta? Perf. Terry Jones. What Is Magna Carta? British Library, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2015