Many years ago someone tried to convince me — an American, who else? — that the US Constitution was inspired by God. It wasn’t; it was inspired rather by a remarkable document forged amid the brutality of the Middle Ages and endorsed in a muddy field called Runnymede, between Staines and London, under the proprietary eyes of powerful men, whose objective was not to elevate, but to limit, the authority of both God and King. The year was 1215; the document, Magna Carta.
They in turn were also not inspired by God, but by a need to stitch up King John lest they were forced to invite Prince Louis of France to conquer England. The Magna Carta came out of the failings of King John; it was demanded owing to his weakness; it survived because of his death. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langdon, was there to ensure that God’s interests were represented, but it was the will of the people that prevailed.
The baronial observer of the day would have read its 63 clauses and seen its nub as a demand to redress grievances, but other clauses were inserted that were to have great significance: on the marriage of widows, for instance, which can be seen as a founding document for the rights of women; on freedom of commerce for foreign merchants, an imaginative law for what was to become the world’s greatest trading nation; the strict administration of justice; the abolition of extraordinary taxation; the protection of life, liberty, and property; no banishment or imprisonment save by judgment of peers. Each clause, each chapter, has bred a library of laws.
The fifth amendment to the American Constitution contains the words, ‘Nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,’ directly echoing Magna Carta’s Clause 39.
‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’ is the basis of the sixth amendment.
The Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owe not only their substance but also their words to those Medieval barons.
Eight hundred years later the British continue to have both monarchs and priests in their place — welcome, perhaps; empowered, certainly not — ruled by the Commons, an apt name reflecting where real power lies: with the commoner, with the people.
Many Americans, burdened by an excess of righteousness, have forgotten the true source of their constitution. It was not God, it certainly was not a messianic president, and if you think it was the Ten Commandments, then you’re a complete cretin. No, it was a group of barbaric, self-interested, and heavily armed citizens in a field next to the Thames, whose astonishing and revolutionary basic tenet was that all people, including leaders, should be subject, not to a king or a president, not to God, but to a piece of paper, or, in this case, vellum.
Rudyard Kipling, as ever, sums it all up quite nicely:
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the mood of kings,
And crowds, and priests, and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!