The Magna Carta and the ‘800-Year Struggle for Liberty’


The signing of the Magna Carta, 800 years ago, was one of the most monumental events in human history. Originally created as a compromise between British nobles and King John at Runnymede, near London, on June 15, 1215, this compact assured that the basic rights of British citizens could not be violated. It would move the English-speaking world in a direction of putting law above men, even kings.

For the 800th anniversary, the American Freedom Alliance is hosting a lecture and conference series in Los Angeles from June 14-16 titled, “Magna Carta: The 800 Year Struggle for Human Liberty.” The list of speakers includes British politician Daniel Hannan, Pacific Legal Foundation’s Tim Sandefur, and former Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard.

Breitbart News interviewed American Freedom Alliance President Avi Davis about the importance of the Magna Carta and why it deserves recognition form the the free world eight centuries after its creation.

Breitbart News: For many Americans the Magna Carta may seem obscure. The time frame between the creation of the Magna Carta and founding of the United States is longer than the entire history of the United States. Can you explain what Americans in particular owe to this document?

Avi Davis: The Magna Carta passed through several iterations before it became incorporated into English law at the end of the 13th century. But almost every king who ascended the English throne recognized its legality and felt bound by its tenets–which became better defined and changed according to the needs of the times. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, wherein in the last Stuart monarch was forced to abdicate his throne because he refused, like his father and grandfather before him, to accept the legislative supremacy of Parliament, was inspired by the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Rights of 1689, the forerunner of our own Bill of Rights, was drawn from the rights that had accrued under the Magna Carta during the preceding centuries. 

Scholars have for centuries declared the unwritten English Constitution,which , transformed the English monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, to have been drawn from and inspired by the Magna Carta. 

It is also unquestionable that the actions of the barons at Runnymede and the production of the Great Charter, inspired the American Colonists in the 1770s to claim their rights not to be taxed without representation. They made these claims not as Americans, but as transplanted Englishmen – British subjects – who had become habituated to exercising their rights as freemen and they invoked the Magna Carta constantly. The Declaration of Independence most definitely reflects these claims and the later U.S. Constitution only amplifies them.

The point I am making – and which the Conference will seek to emphasize—is that a direct thread links our own Constitution and Bill of Rights–which governs our political life and enshrines our political and civil rights–to the events in England 800 years ago. And we cannot afford to forget the arduous journey undertaken by our ancestors to secure these rights–which accrue to us largely by virtue of their fortitude and sacrifices. We need to defy those who would paint the Magna Carta as just a back-room deal between a crooked king and his cronies that the King never took seriously anyway. That is a falsehood. None of the rights we enjoy today in our free society would have been possible without the Magna Carta.

Breitbart News: What is the best way for people to educate themselves about the Magna Carta and the principles that are at the backbone of Western ideas of liberty?

Avi Davis: I would recommend several books but would start with Daniel Hannan’s extraordinarily inspiring book Inventing Freedom:How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World which traces the genesis of our concept of freedom back beyond even the Magna Carta to the Anglo-Saxon communities of Northern Germany where individual rights were respected and kings were first among equals. He then takes us on a magnificent guided journey through English history as the English speaking peoples develop the Anglosphere and in the process spread the concept of individual liberty throughout the world.

My colleague John Hancock‘s book Liberty Inherited, is equally impressive, providing a detailed overview of The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England and how its after shocks can be felt even today in the structure of our political institutions and the shaping of our political dialogue. 

Finally, I would recommend almost anything by Alan MacFarlane–The Origins of English Individualism and The Riddle of the Modern World in particular–which offer deep insight into the true origins of the concept of individual rights and proves, quite emphatically, that they did not materialize out of thin air but came about because they flourished in a particular culture at a particular period of time and how fortuitous it truly was that that culture came to dominate the world.

All of these books have extensive bibliographies and recommended reading lists which will keep an interested student busy for quite some time.

Breitbart News: Can you explain what the “Magna Carta: The 800 Year Struggle for Human Liberty” conference seeks to promote and a little about what is slated for the agenda?

Avi Davis: I think the most important thing we are seeking to convey with this conference is that we cannot and must not ever take the liberties and freedoms we enjoy in our society for granted.  The rights we enjoy, which, after all, give the word ‘freedom’ itself a frame of reference, emerged after centuries of bitter struggle. We, in the West, don’t know what it is not to be free; Yet, most of the world is not free–at least not anywhere near our level–and that could happen to us too if we are not vigilant and if we do not pay constant attention to the fragility of  this unique experiment in democracy and the strenuous efforts taken over the centuries to hem in arbitrary rule. We can gain inspiration for our future by looking back to the past – finding there the rudiments of our current psychological, political, social and economic make up.  

We also want to use this conference to rebut revisionist historians who seek to detach us from a glorious history and see the past only through the prism of class, race, gender and sexual orientation. In effect, we need to steal the past back from these historical defacers and restore it as the fountainhead of our political system and life. A roundtable workshop on the final day of the conference will be devoted to exactly this subject and we intend to issue a declaration, as a group and as an organization to that effect. 


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