One of the really cool things about our National Archives is that it owns a copy of the Magna Carta, aka, The Great Charter of Liberties (thanks to a wealthy philanthropist). Sadly, if you visit right now, you won’t be able to see it. The 13th century document is currently getting a makeover of sorts. Kindly, however, the National Archives has provided this cool looksy at the process.
So, why should you care about a 13th century document that is older than our country? Well, when the barons had finally had enough of King John–yes, that King John–of King John’s taxes and other policies, they cornered him at Runnymede meadow, and handed him a document that they had written up with some aid by a few bishops on hand. While they were primarily concerned with looking after themselves, the barons put a few lines in that most important of all legal documents that have become the hallmarks of the Rule of Law and of our dearest-held rights. It wasn’t much aid to a woman who wished to bring a rapist to justice (“54: No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon a woman’s appeal for the death of any person other than her husband.”)–although, it does do some mighty fine things for the rights of widows–it nevertheless extended and insisted on the these rights for all free men in the kingdom, regardless of rank (other than that free part).
Try to think about this for a moment: imagine that France had secured a similar document and protected as the English lords would do (several successive kings attempted to do away with it, only to have it be reestablished by the combined might of the aristocracy), would there have ever been a Sun King, a Versailles, a vast centralizing of power in the king, a Marie Antoinette, a French Revolution, and a handful of blood baths? Would the successive events have been possible if the power had been forcibly decentralized and the early stirrings of a parliament founded when France was still medieval, as happened in England? Quite plausibly not!
Regardless of France, these United States of America referenced the legacy of the Magna Carta at length both in arguments for fair treatment while still a colony under Britain and in the construction of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.