The Magna Carta, Maryland and the Rule of Law
By Deborah Lambert
In case you missed it, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – or Great Charter – occurred this month, and deserves much more than a passing mention. The document was signed on June 15, 1215 on a field at Runnymede, England, and ironically, it wasn’t conceived as a monumental political statement, but merely as a peace treaty designed by noblemen of the day in order to rein in the power of the crown.
Although King John immediately forced the annulment of the original document, its basic premise that “no one, including the king, is above the law,” survived in subsequent versions until it spread to the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries and became the cornerstone of what was later called Anglo-American law.
As early as 1637, Maryland sought permission to incorporate Magna Carta into its basic law, and in 1638 the Maryland colonial assembly passed a bill to recognize the Magna Carta as part of the law of the province, according to various histories of the document. But the declaration “that the inhabitants shall have all their rights and liberties according to the great charter of England,” was “disallowed by King Charles I through his attorney general, because it was uncertain how far the enactment thereof will be agreeable to the constitution of this colony or consistent with the royal prerogative.”
However, elements of the Magna Carta are evident throughout Maryland history, starting with the Maryland Colony’s founding charter in 1632, according to American Bar Association president William Hubbard.
“Over the years, those provisions and protections of Magna Carta have continued to flow through and into the Constitution of the State of Maryland,” said Hubbard, adding that “the language used in Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights – which guarantees, among other things, the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers – is nearly identical to that of Article 39 of the original 1215 Magna Carta.”
The Heritage Foundation recently observed that the Magna Carta’s enduring strength over the past 800 years stands as proof that a “written document can make important revisions to the law, fend off tyrannical government officials, restrain even the sovereign’s power, and grant rights to the entire community, not merely to certain favored individuals – an enduring legacy that has helped to establish what is known as ‘the rule of law.’”
Even so, the course that American history has taken over the years has not been kind to the Magna Carta. In fact, many revisionist historians have demeaned and deconstructed this influential document to the level of a myth that deserves little or no attention. Author and scholar M. Stanton (Stan) Evans noted that when taking his octogenarian mother to England to visit Runnymeade in the mid-1990s, the cab driver pointed out that they were passing the home of Elton John. His mother responded by asking, “Who is Elton John?” Later when Evans regaled a group of recent college graduates with the story, they asked, “What’s the Magna Carta?”
And yet, as Daniel Hannen, Conservative member of Parliament, recently observed in a Wall Street Journal article, “the law was no longer just an expression of the will of the biggest guy in the tribe. Above the king brooded something more powerful yet—something you couldn’t see or hear or touch or taste but that bound the sovereign as surely as it bound the poorest wretch in the kingdom. That something was what Magna Carta called “the law of the land.”
And that difference, according to Hannen, may explain why “the Anglosphere resisted the chronic bouts of authoritarianism to which most other Western countries were prone. We who speak this language have always seen the defense of freedom as the duty of our representatives and so, by implication, of those who elect them. Liberty and democracy, in our tradition, are not balanced against each other; they are yoked together.”