Last week I wrote about the principles at stake in the American War for Self-Government (a.k.a., the American Revolution). What we need to realize is that the American colonists didn’t formulate these principles in a vacuum. There is a long history of British documents related to limited government and the rights of citizens. First on that list is the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta-King JohnWritten in the 13th century (1215, to be precise), the Magna Carta was a response to King John, who had decided that tradition didn’t bind him, and he could rule arbitrarily, even to the point of forcing taxes without any representation from the nobility in the land. They rose up to guard their ancient rights and forced the king to sign this particular document. It didn’t grant anything new; it was merely a statement of what already was.

What we have with the Magna Carta is the first written document identifying the rights of individuals. These rights had been handed down from one generation to the next orally; the Magna Carta signified a transition from orally transmitted rights to those written down for posterity.

Some of the key rights identified in this document were:

  • No tax can be imposed except by common council of the kingdom
  • Fines are to be according to the degree of the offense
  • Personal property cannot be taken without the consent of the owner
  • Witnesses are needed for indictments against individuals
  • No death sentence, imprisonment, dispossession, or banishment without due process of law

Why were these the traditional concepts upon which England operated? Where did they get these ideas?

Back in 1965, a scholar named Helen Silving wrote an article in the Harvard Journal on Legislation that brought to light the basis for the Magna Carta. Here is what she wrote:

An old document such as the Magna Carta is not only that which it “was” at the time of its conception, but also that which it becomes in the course of history. In this sense, undoubtedly, the Magna Carta stands for the idea . . . of subjection of the King not to man but to God and the law, an idea rooted in the Bible which has dominated Anglo-American thought. At this time it may be sufficient to point out the strong possibility that historically controversial old documents of the Western world, as well as some quite modern constitutional ideas, have their origin in the Bible.

The roots of this foundational document are found in the Bible. Yet even in 1965, this was a controversial statement to make, as she notes:

It is remarkable, indeed, and has an interesting bearing on the nature of our reactions to the Bible, that this has passed unnoticed, while efforts have been made to connect our constitutional documents with Greek and Roman ideas.

Whatever influence Greece and Rome had on the development of Western civilization, there was another influence far greater—the Biblical foundation laid for centuries after Greece and Rome had disappeared as empires. It was this foundation, primarily, that guided the thinking of the American colonists as they fought the battle of ideas that led ultimately to a break with the Mother Country.

I’ll provide more of this legal background in my next post in this continuing series that offers a Biblical perspective on American history.