The Forgotten Spirit of the Magna Carta

In 1215, disgruntled English barons unwittingly won a great victory for Western liberty. After King John waged several unsuccessful, senseless wars, the barons, sick of financing wars in which they had no interest, temporarily ended John’s despotism by forcing him to sign the Magna Carta. Though the Great Charter mostly reflected selfish baronial interests, it set an important precedent that influenced British and American legal thought: it placed the central government under the rule of law. America’s Founding Fathers made sure to incorporate the spirit of the Magna Carta into the Constitution, placing strict limits on the central government, particularly the executive branch.

Today, the spirit of the Magna Carta is in grave danger. For decades, Americans have accepted a central government that slowly unshackles itself from the rule of law. This trend, however, has accelerated since Sept. 11, 2001. The American people have allowed the Bush administration to, under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” wage an unconstitutional, imperialist war, trample civil liberties, and run up a national debt that would infuriate the Founders. Americans should consider the events that motivated the barons to force the Magna Carta upon King John and compare them to our own time. Then, perhaps, we would recognize the importance of the Magna Carta for preserving liberty.

Both John and his predecessor, Richard the Lionhearted, levied heavy taxes on their subjects to support military adventures. Richard, in fact, spent most of his time abroad, fighting Saladin in the Holy Land and an on-again, off-again war against the French king, Philip Augustus. After Richard died, John continued the war with France and lost badly. The barons – who were not enthusiastic about the war anyway – became enraged when Philip Augustus took Normandy, since many of them held lands there. John’s complete failure in another French adventure in 1214 only exacerbated the situation, and when John demanded money for another war, the barons renounced their loyalty to the Crown and forced him to sign the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta, according to historian Simon Schama in his A History of Britain, “was not the birth certificate of freedom” in the rhetorical tradition of the Declaration of Independence. However, it “was the death certificate of despotism.” It, for the first time, placed the English king under the rule of law. For example, it eliminated the king’s power to arrest his subjects arbitrarily; now, he had to acknowledge habeas corpus, a man’s right to have a judge rule on the legality of his imprisonment. Moreover, the Magna Carta limited the king’s ability to levy taxes on his subjects. Now, he could only demand “aids” (special taxes) from barons for three purposes (and, even then, the amounts had to be “reasonable”): to pay his ransom should he be captured, to knight his eldest son, and to marry his oldest daughter.

Some even argue that the Magna Carta planted the seeds for the Founding Fathers’ declaration of “no taxation without representation;” the Great Charter says the king may not levy any further taxes without the “common counsel” of the kingdom. Law professor A.E. Dick Howard, however, downplays this assertion, writing that this reasoning overly modernizes the language. However, he does say that future generations – particularly America’s Founding Fathers – undoubtedly viewed this as a precedent for demanding representation in exchange for paying taxes.

Thus, the Magna Carta marks a watershed in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Even though it primarily protected baronial interests – most of it deals with John’s abuses of the barons, not the kingdom as a whole – it still placed the king under the rule of law. The king now had to respect civil liberties, and he could no longer levy tax after tax to support foreign adventures.

Today, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of the British under Richard the Lionhearted and John. The Bush administration also enjoys mindless foreign adventurism. Bush and his neoconservative backers have invaded a country (Iraq) that had no intention of attacking us. Any doubts about the administration’s intentions in Iraq should have been erased by the “Downing Street memo,” which clearly shows that Bush “fixed” intelligence to support a war he had already decided to pursue.

The memo, which was leaked to the British press, details a July 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers. The memo shows that the Bush administration told the British it had already decided to invade Iraq in early 2003, even though Iraq’s “WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran.” Moreover, the memo proves that the Bush administration was ill-prepared for the postwar occupation, which has killed far more soldiers than the initial war to topple Saddam. According to the memo, “There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”

President Bush, like King John, has waged a war of choice against a country that posed little or no threat. However, President Bush and John differ in one important respect. America, unlike John’s England, finances its wars by borrowing. King John, in contrast, simply levied taxes. By borrowing, the Bush administration avoids the problem King John faced; since the war is financed without taxes, it does not directly affect most people. This minimizes domestic dissent, allowing Bush to continue the war with no worries about tightfisted taxpayers pulling the plug on his imperial adventures.

Thomas Jefferson, who embodied the spirit of the Magna Carta perhaps more than any other Founder, understood the perils of excessive government borrowing. He once described public debt as “the greatest of dangers to be feared.” Jefferson opposed massive national debt because he saw it as a threat to the liberty he loved. High public debts allow governments to prosecute wars unopposed by the general population (since the people do not immediately notice the impact on their finances), and wars present a great threat to liberty. As president, he dramatically reduced the national debt, despite having borrowed heavily to finance the Louisiana Purchase. Before he became president, he even advocated amending the Constitution to forbid borrowing altogether, writing to John Taylor in 1798:

“I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing. I now deny their power of making paper money or anything else a legal tender. I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as ten wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion; besides that the State governments would be free to lend their credit in borrowing quotas.”

Jefferson, like the English barons in 1215, recognized the threat centralized power poses to liberty. Governments with no restrictions on executive power inevitably tyrannize their citizens at home and wage perpetual wars abroad. Therefore, government – especially the executive branch – must be limited, especially in its ability to finance foreign wars.

Unfortunately, Americans have apparently lost the spirit of the Magna Carta when they need it more than ever. Congress allowed President Bush to launch a war against Iraq without even heeding its constitutional obligation to declare war. The Bush administration has financed its war by borrowing billions from Asian creditors, which places our economic future in foreign hands; if the Asians come to doubt Bush’s ability to pay his debts, they could sink the American economy by taking their investments elsewhere.

Besides endangering America’s economic future, Bush’s borrowing has saddled future generations with an enormous debt. Today’s young people will inevitably face a huge tax increase to repay America’s $7.7 trillion national debt. Jefferson feared precisely this scenario:

“Loading up the nation with debt and leaving it for the following generations to pay is morally irresponsible. No nation has a right to contract debt for periods longer than the majority contracting it can expect to live.”

The Bush administration has used the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a pretext for centralizing authority in the executive branch. It has borrowed excessively to finance two wars (neither of which was declared by Congress); gained passage of the PATRIOT Act, which gives the central government sweeping authority to suspend civil liberties; and pursued an interventionist foreign policy that most, if not all, of our Founders would have abhorred.

Sadly, Americans have shown little inclination to challenge the Bush administration’s centralization of authority. Instead of opposing Bush’s unprecedented expansion of executive power, Americans have allowed it to occur largely unchecked. At this writing, the “Downing Street memo” – which infuriated the British public and received extensive coverage abroad – has received scant attention here in America. Congress recently sowed the seed of a national ID card by passing a military spending bill that contains a provision requiring state driver’s licenses to adhere to standards established by the federal government. The bill passed with little opposition (but a few heroic exceptions, like Congressman Ron Paul of Texas).

Have Americans completely forgotten the spirit of the Magna Carta? It certainly looks like it. The vast majority of Americans have stood idly by while the Bush administration launched a senseless war, ran up a monstrous national debt, and stepped on their civil liberties. We can only hope the spirit of the Magna Carta will return. If it does not, America faces a bleak future of bankruptcy, despotism at home, and perpetual war abroad.

Read more by Andrew Young