Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jefferson, Monty Python, UCMJ and Magna Carta at 800

by Bill Doughty

Terry Jones of Monty Python narrates a really cool video synthesizing the history of Magna Carta on the occasion of its 800 year birthday this weekend and recognizing it as one of the cornerstones of democracy and human rights.

The animated video is part of a project sponsored by the British Library:

"Why was Magna Carta agreed at Runnymede in 1215? What did the document say, and how was it interpreted over the next 800 years? Why is it still important today, and how does it affect our culture, laws and rights?"

The ideas captured in the document crossed the Atlantic with colonists and immigrants searching for liberty and an escape from gross inequality.

Penn reprinted Magna Carta in 1687.
Magna Carta influenced growth of freedom in Philadelphia under William Penn in the century before the American Revolution. Penn, founder of Philadelphia ("City of Brotherly Love") was persecuted, even jailed, for freely expressing his religious beliefs as a Quaker. He stood for the belief, expressed in Magna Carta that the innate rights of people should not be infringed upon by the Church or State. Penn had the full text of Magna Carta reprinted in Philadelphia in 1687.

The U.S. National Archives offers an exhibit and series of programs this summer commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

From the Archives website: "During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights."

Interestingly, Thomas Paine in his "Rights of Man" denounced Magna Carta for not going far enough, in that it was merely a bargain with the barons and other nobles and did not represent the interest of all people. Perhaps Paine's argument was influenced by his strong ties to France.

Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson saw Magna Carta as a turning point in the history of human rights.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson, who as president was commander in chief during the Navy's victory in the the Barbary Wars, wrote a letter in 1814 referencing Magna Carta. It was the same year British troops burned the Library of Congress in the War of 1812 (Jefferson would donate 6,000 books from his personal library in response).
In Jefferson's letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, dated Feb. 10, 1814, the statesman reminisces about "a time of life when I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they had, and bearding every authority which stood in the way."

He reasons that Magna Carta, also spelled "Magna Charta," was significant in that it marked a turning point in history from common law to statute law.
"For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law, or lex non scripta, and commences that of the statute law, or Lex Scripta. This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century."
Jefferson's letter makes the case that American law and justice evolved from legislative authority based on fundamentals of human reasoning, rights and freedom.

In "Thomas Jefferson: A Life" author Willard Sterne Randall reveals that "whether he knew it or not (Jefferson) was descended, on his mother's side ... from one of the barons who signed the Magna Carta in 1215."

Magna Carta also influenced the thinking and philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi and therefore Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King John is compelled to sign Magna Carta May 15, 1215.
2nd Lt. Allen Ernst, of 71st FTW Legal Office of Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, offers this perspective as to why the 800-year-old document is relevant to members of the armed forces as a keystone for Uniformed Code of Military Justice:

"The UCMJ governs all US military personnel around the world, from the chief of staff to the newest airman basic, and protects the rights of service members by laying out strict guidelines for the due process of military law," he writes. "For example, Article 7(e) prohibits confinement of individuals without probable cause, and Article 55 specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment."
According to Ernst, "The Magna Carta was a response to a problem. King John of England was abusing his supreme power, supposedly by divine right, acting selfishly at best and destructively at worst."

Navy JAGs visit Library of Congress Magna Carta exhibit Jan. 14, 2015. (Photo by Lt.j.g. Hood)
Lt.j.g. Colin Hood of the Region Legal Service Office Naval District Washington wrote in a post in March on DOD Navy Live U.S. Navy JAG Corps blog:

"Although the original charter was nullified by Pope Innocent III a few weeks after its distribution, language from the document would be recycled in subsequent royal charters and decrees. The interpretation and implementation of ideas expressed in the Magna Carta would eventually lead to the beginnings of several legal theories (the right to due process, the jury system, etc.) we depend on today."

Eventually, in 20th century, Magna Carta would even influence the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition to the funny and informative Monty Pythonesque video, the British Library's comprehensive site offers a series of essays about Magna Carta, including more about how early American history was influenced by the landmark document.

(Special thanks to friend and colleague Brandon Bosworth for his suggestion to do a Navy Reads post on this topic. Check out Brandon's A Gent In Training blog. Mind-expanding reads.)

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