Quote of the Day:

Americans should light 800 candles for the birthday of the document that began paving the meandering path to limited government.

 George Will in Saturday’s Washington Post

Yes! Put your hands together this morning for the barons of Runnymede!

The Magna Carta was signed eight hundred years ago today in the meadows of Runnymede by the vastly unpopular King John.

While some clauses in the Magna Carta strike us today as odd or incomprehensible, it was the start of something magna. It remains arguably the most important piece of writing in the annals of liberty. Scratch that "arguably."

The great conservative intellectual Russell Kirk wrote this about the Magna Carta (hat tip Power Line):

Most of the articles of this Great Charter have lost their significance with the passing of the feudal age. But a fundamental principle of Magna Carta, though not expressed in so many words in that document itself, endures to our day. This principle entered into the developing common law of the thirteenth century, and appeared in later royal charters and statutes. It became the rock upon which the English constitution was built. It is the principle of the supremacy of law: the idea that an enduring law exists, which all men must obey. The king himself is one of those men under the law. Along with this principle ran a corollary principle—that if the king breaks the law, and invades the right of his vassals, then barons and people may deprive him of his powers.

From this principle the whole English constitution—an “unwritten” constitution in the sense that it can be found in no single document—developed in time. This principle would be asserted by the Americans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; it is the root of the Declaration of Independence.

I am sure that some PC people today are shunning any celebration of the Magna Carter (it was signed by rich, white barons!), but it laid down the principle, as Kirk notes, of the supremacy of the law, which is the foundation of liberty. An article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette recalls how the Magna Carter resonated when the American colonists were beginning to asserting their liberty against the Crown:

 In the 1760s, when Parliament and the Crown under George III pressed the American colonies for taxes and committed other so-called “Intolerable Acts,” resentful Americans —including ambitious lawers like James Otis and John Adams — reached for Magna Carta in support of their opposition to arbitrary power. The charter was freely invoked in political rhetoric and highlighted in patriot propaganda. Paul Revere depicted it in the seal he designed for revolutionary Massachusetts. After Yorktown, it became a potent symbol of successful resistance to tyranny and not incidentally, to the successful leadership of lawyers. As such it influenced the debate over the Constitution and the content of the Bill of Rights.

Also writing about the importance of the Magna Carta for Americans, George Will notes:

The first memorial at Runnymede was built in 1957 by, appropriately, the American Bar Association. It is what America did with what Magna Carta started that substantially advanced the cause of limited government. The rule of law — as opposed to rule by the untrammeled will of the strong — requires effective checks on the strong. In a democracy, the strongest force is the majority, whose power will be unlimited unless an independent judiciary enforces written restraints, such as those stipulated in the Constitution. It is “the supreme law” because it is superior to what majorities produce in statutes. Magna Carta acknowledged no new individual rights. Instead, it insisted, mistakenly, that it could guarantee that certain existing rights would survive “in perpetuity.” British rights exist, however, at the sufferance of Parliament. In America, rights are protected by the government’s constitutional architecture — the separation of powers and by the judicial power to stymie legislative and executive power.

Will turns his attention to Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review of legislation to determine if laws are in harmony with the Constitution.

The Supreme Court is bound to change and it is possible that a Republican president will make the next nominations. Will says that conservatives should have a debate about what is wanted in future justices:  

Is majority rule or liberty — these are not synonyms, and the former can menace the latter — America’s fundamental purpose?

The Magna Carta, a foundational document in Western liberty, is as good a place as any to start.