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How Did Magna Carta Influence the U.S. Constitution?

September 30, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

The 13th-century pact inspired the U.S. Founding Fathers as they wrote the documents that would shape the nation.

In 1215, a band of rebellious medieval barons forced King John of England to agree to a laundry list of concessions later called the Great Charter, or in Latin, Magna Carta. Centuries later, America’s Founding Fathers took great inspiration from this medieval pact as they forged the nation’s founding documents—including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

For 18th-century political thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Magna Carta was a potent symbol of liberty and the natural rights of man against an oppressive or unjust government. The Founding Fathers’ reverence for Magna Carta had less to do with the actual text of the document, which is mired in medieval law and outdated customs, than what it represented—an ancient pact safeguarding individual liberty.

“For early Americans, Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence were verbal representations of what liberty was and what government should be—protecting people rather than oppressing them,” says John Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Much in the same way that for the past 100 years the Statue of Liberty has been a visual representation of freedom, liberty, prosperity and welcoming.”

When the First Continental Congress met in 1774 to draft a Declaration of Rights and Grievances against King George III, they asserted that the rights of the English colonists to life, liberty and property were guaranteed by “the principles of the English constitution,” a.k.a. Magna Carta. On the title page of the 1774 Journal of The Proceedings of The Continental Congress is an image of 12 arms grasping a column on whose base is written “Magna Carta.”

Rights of Life, Liberty and Property

King John signing Magna Carta, 1215.

Of the 60-plus clauses contained in Magna Carta, only a handful are relevant to the 18th-century American experience. Those include passages that guarantee the right to a trial by a jury, protection against excessive fines and punishments, safeguarding of individual liberty and property, and, perhaps most importantly, the forbidding of taxation without representation.

The two most-cited clauses of Magna Carta for defenders of liberty and the rule of law are 39 and 40:

39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights …read more


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