Spotlight: Magna Carta of 1215 AD – the roots of the American Constitution

Magna Carta

Many attempts to draft constitutional forms of government, including the United States Constitution, trace their lineage back to this literature masterpiece –  Magna Carta.  The British dominions, Australia and New Zealand, Canada (except Quebec), and formerly Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, reflected influence of Magna Carta in their law, and the Charter impacted generally on the states that evolved from the British Empire.

The 1215 charter required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary—for example by explicitly accepting that no “freeman” (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right that still exists.

Lord Denning described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. In a 2005 speech, Lord Woolf described it as “first of a series of instruments that now are recognized as having a special constitutional status”, the others being the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), and the Act of Settlement (1701).

When American colonists raised arms against Britain, they were fighting not so much for new freedom, but to preserve liberties and rights, as believed to be enshrined in Magna Carta and as later included in the Bill of Rights. American Revolutionaries would supplement this with ideas of natural right.The American Constitution is the supreme law of the land, recalling the manner in which Magna Carta had come to be regarded as fundamental law. This heritage is quite apparent – in comparing Magna Carta with the Bill of Rights

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