The liberties we Americans enjoy were hard-won over the centuries. Today we mark a major event in that struggle, the day in 1215 when English barons presented King John with a written list of rights they demanded he recognize. Known ultimately as Magna Carta, the Great Charter, it was a compact between the barons and their king, a political effort by subjects to secure their liberty by placing their ruler under the rule of law, thus limiting arbitrary power.
The charter has gone through several iterations, but it drew in part from the common law rights, especially rights of property, that judges in the king’s courts had been finding from reason and custom as they decided controversies the king’s subjects brought before them. What Magna Carta did was bring those same rights against the king. Most important for us today was the promise found in clause 29:
No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, nor shall we go upon him, nor shall we send upon him, except by a legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
Note first the broad terms of clause 29: that enabled it to apply not just to the issues at hand but to varied future situations. Second, notice that only “freemen” were protected. The barons came to realize, however, that if their rights were to be maintained against the king, they would need the cooperation of all classes. Thus, the charter came in time to protect “common” liberties.
Each of those issues has informed the American experience. First, Magna Carta itself inspired our Founders to limit power through a written document, our Constitution. Second, clause 29 is captured in the Fifth Amendment, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. And third, Magna Carta’s capacity to grow is reflected by the post-Civil War inclusion of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. That brought the Bill of Rights to bear not only against the federal government, its original limit, but against the states as well. We owe much to this English inheritance.Roger Pilon, Ph.D., J.D., is Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Cato Institute, where he also serves as the B. Kenneth Simon Chair in Constitutional Studies and Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies.