Some time next June, about a year from now, Magna Carta will turn 800. The exact date I leave to historians to determine: there were several versions, and the prevailing calendar was different then.
Whatever the exact date is, it deserves massive celebration, all around the globe, especially in every English-speaking nation. The anniversary will be a uniquely important teachable moment for our entire species. Nations that revere the Great Charter as the fount of post-ancient democracy should agree on a single date and make it a common, international holiday.
Why is Magna Carta so important, and what can it teach? Here are its principal lessons:
1. Democracy takes time. Eight centuries will have passed since King John negotiated an agreement with his Barons to avoid a bloody battle. Yet there is still no perfect democracy anywhere on Earth. Our Yankee democracy is far from perfect, with minority rule in our Senate and (except at the whim of John Boehner) in the House.
There may never be a perfect democracy. But knowing Magna Carta’s longevity helps us all have patience with Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, and even ourselves.
2. Democracy is a never-ending struggle and negotiation over power. Magna Carta’s real character often surprises people who know its general import but not its details. It says nothing about voting and absolutely nothing about ordinary people, let alone their supposed “rights.”
Magna Carta’s direct beneficiaries were all the then elite—the plutocrats of their day. They were the Barons themselves, other less noble landholders, the high clergy (one of whom drafted it), and the sheriffs who enforced the nobility’s law. Women gained a bit, but only noble women, and then only through dower rights to their husbands’ estates after death. Ordinary people, including peasants, workers and tradesmen, remained subject to their lords’ and “betters’” whim.
3. The impetus for democracy was, and still is, a less bloody substitute for armed conflict. King John signed Magna Carta for one reason only. He and his forces had assembled on the fields of Runnymede opposite the Barons and their forces, all in full battle regalia, ready to rumble. The King could count, and he saw he was outnumbered.
So he could fight, lose a lot of men, and possibly his own life or his freedom. Or he could make a deal. He made a deal, which we now consider the foundation of Anglo-American democracy. In a risky position, he chose bargaining and compromise over jihad.
Except for a few embellishments, like free markets and the rule of law, that simple principle is what makes English-speaking societies among the best places to live on the planet, 800 years later.
4. Economic power matters, too. Magna Carta came about because the English Barons, like the King, had lots of land and therefore economic power. In those days, land was the principal, if not the only, form of “capital” and the predominant source of wealth.
With land and the income it provided, the King and the Barons could hire and support their own armies. Without the Barons’ economic power, there would have been no balance of military power and no agreement. The dispersion of economic power among the Barons—a tiny but distinct social class—was the practical source of Magna Carta and the raw beginning of egalitarianism.
5. Economic power, the source of political power, depends on a lot more than politics. Despite Magna Carta, ordinary people never had much power until the Industrial Revolution. Until then, they were peasants, working land that others owned. Their homes and their crops, which they grew with their own labor, were not really their own.
The Industrial Revolution made a difference. It allowed ordinary workers to create wealth without owning land or working others’ land. Of course they had to work in others’ factories, but their skill made a difference. So, eventually, did their ability to organize and strike.
So for working people, democracy depended most on the skill and cooperation of labor. It didn’t reach full flower until Henry Ford’s $5-a-day wage (in 1914). That then unprecedented wage gave workers the power to create wealth with their skill in making things and an ability to buy what they made, thereby enriching capitalists. Labor and capital became unequal partners in each other’s enrichment, and our consumer society, with its large middle class, took off.
6. Economic power can come and go with changes in culture, social norms and technology. Today’s economies, most observers agree, require a large middle class. Why so? Because in today’s populous cities and nations, there are not enough “elite” rulers, including pols and CEOs, to form anything like a complete society.
Economic life and technology are so diverse and specialized that no leader, no matter how skilled, could, for example, make or fly an airplane or computer or run an airline or power plant all alone. The more economic power workers have through specialization and division of labor, the more power they have to bargain with leaders, just as the Barons did with King John.
7. But mass culture also threatens to disempower the individual. Imagine the power of the Barons without their land. It would have vanished. Such is the dilemma of individuals in a mass culture, with nothing unique to give them bargaining leverage.
Movie stars, sports stars, great teachers, scientists, doctors and lawyers may have bargaining power, but what about the rest of us? As our lives become a perpetual struggle to educate ourselves and our kids and climb the corporate or economic ladder, what happens to our individual bargaining power? Do we become like the Barons without land, or landless peasants before the industrial revolution? It looks as if we’re about to find out.
Whatever happens, the basic principles of Magna Carta hold true. First, no one and no social class ever achieved power without leverage and the willingness to use it, even to fight if necessary. The Barons were no patsies: they got their rights in writing because they were ready to fight. Second, peaceful bargaining, no matter how prolonged and frustrating, is better than bloodshed and war. It nearly always produces more lasting and stable results. Think of those 800 years.
Can our species put those two simple lessons to work in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, maybe even Sudan and South Sudan, the Congo, Zimbabwe and the whole of the Korean Peninsula? Only time will tell. But wildly celebrating Magna Carta’s 800th birthday may help recall those two simple lessons.
8. Democracy is not all. Magna Carta was an important step in human social evolution. But it was not and is not a guarantee of human social success. Our species still needs to maintain and accelerate its moral evolution.
The reason is simple but compelling. Majorities can err, too. Democracy is no guarantee of taking the right path.
Little more than a generation away from the pinnacle of human culture and civilization, the German people freely elected Adolf Hitler their leader, the first time. In our American South, eleven seceding states, with long traditions of democratic government, repeatedly and adamantly chose slavery as their socioeconomic system. Fourteen years ago, we Yankees (with some help from our Supreme Court) freely elected George W. Bush, who instituted torture and rendition in the world’s then-greatest democracy and invaded two sovereign states, starting the two longest wars in our Yankee history.
In ancient Greece, great thinkers and writers like Plato and Socrates once carried the burden of evolving moral philosophy. But for two millennia, at least outside of Asia, our species has outsourced and institutionalized the project. Organized religion has stolen the legacies of great thinkers and leaders like Jesus and Mohammed and left us with caricatures of totalitarian states.
From their half-secular and half-religous pulpits, popes and imams think for or harangue our masses, in exchange for vast wealth and social privileges, in a ghastly and cynical bargain. You masses maintain me in obscene luxury, secure above the quotidian struggles that all humans must endure, and I will think for you and tell you what to do. This is neither democracy nor cooperative human thinking. (Pope Francis is a welcome exception who proves the rule.)
For two millennia, Heaven and Hell were as real to many ordinary people as political parties are to most today. They—or their evocation by elite religious leaders living in monarchial luxury—were the moral flywheels of human society.
Today those flywheels are losing their momentum. In our highly educated society, we know that Heaven and Hell are but clever human fictions. In the West, ordinary people are turning away from organized religion in droves, while a few extremists yearn for medieval simplicity and seek to trigger Armageddon. In the East, Islam is decaying similarly, while a few extremists turn the systematic slaughter of innocents into an obligatory holy rite.
Despite Martin Luther’s best efforts, nowhere have we humans found a moral compass to replace Heaven and Hell, or a moral democracy to replace the intellectual tyranny that organized religion has become. Nowhere have we forged a society in which free men and women can evolve their own working morality, within a framework of free but guided individual thought.
Now that our species has, at least tentatively, put the specters of starvation, want and war at bay, we need to attend to our moral evolution. We need to find new thinkers like Plato and Socrates and pay at least as much attention to them as we pay to sports heroes, rock stars, notable terrorists, caricatures of policy makers, and winners on American Idol. Perhaps Magna Carta can help here, too, if only by reminding us that nothing of value comes to us without careful attention, risk and struggle. Let us not forget that Socrates, like Jesus, was killed for his moral thinking.
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I first met Magna Carta in 1971, long before I became a lawyer and later a law professor. I was a postdoctoral geophysicist, beginning my NSF-NATO fellowship in Cambridge, England. But I knew how important Magna Carta was in our common history. So when I visited the British Museum for the very first time in my life, Magna Carta, not the Rosetta Stone, was the thing I most wanted to see.
The display there and then was a disappointment. There were two or three original sheepskins (vella) with the document inscribed on them in faded, centuries-old Latin script. I had studied Latin and had won a Latin essay contest as a high-school student. But I found the faded, tiny, ancient calligraphy, lacking spaces between words, indecipherable.
After trying for an hour to read the great document, while ducking other visitors wanting better views, I gave up. I left the display with reverence but little understanding.
Over four decades later, as a law professor, I saw a much better exhibit in the Australian National Museum in Canberra. I think it had one copy of a later-signed vellum version. But more important, it had an interactive digital display of closeups of original vella, with copious transcribed Latin script and English translations. It also had modern explanations of the significance of each provision and how it had changed (or not) through the various versions of Magna Carta, which had appeared over several decades. I left that exhibit not only with even more reverence, but with infinitely greater understanding.
Magna Carta is unique in two respects. First, it’s an idea. It represents societal advancement through peaceful, voluntary compromise among rough economic equals. It’s a part of our social evolution that separates us decisively from other primates, whose clans the alpha ape governs absolutely and by force.
Second, and perhaps more important, Magna Carta’s history tells how a vital idea, which helped make us human, evolved through most of the last millennium. In order to appreciate the process, we must know, in detail, how incomparably primitive King John’s world was compared to our own today, and how nevertheless the idea and the compromise behind Magna Carta remain timeless.
Almost five years ago, I named three later events in human history
whose anniversaries also deserve enthusiastic celebration. One occurred in England, and two in Germany.
The first was Martin Luther’s 1517 Wittenberg Church Manifesto, which challenged the Catholic Church’s absolute power and endorsed individual thought and conscience. It took only baby steps from that liberation of individuals’ minds to attain modern democracy and modern science
The second was the English Parliament’s adoption of the Statute of Monopolies in 1623. This law reduced absolute and abusive economic
power, just as Magna Carta had reduced absolute political power. It’s the foundation of American antitrust law and European and Japanese competition law. In many respects, including treble damages and exceptions for patents (and later copyrights), the old law still reads like a modern statute, after nearly four centuries.
The third great event after Magna Carta was the 1946 Nuremburg Trials (for war crimes) after World War II. For the first time in human history, the Trials held national leaders responsible for their crimes not just to their own people or to their conquerers, but to our entire species.
Yet for three centuries, Magna Carta remained the single greatest step in human social evolution. It will always be the first. So its 800th anniversary deserves massive, informed celebration by educators everywhere, as well as by every people that values its lessons.
Holidays are days we set aside to celebrate things that really matter. Isn’t the foundation of democracy, through reasoned compromise as a substitute for armed battle, one of those things? If so, let the planning for the fireworks, bonfires, music and parties begin!