June 15, 2015
by Alemayehu G. Mariam
Today, June 15, 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta Libertatum or the Great Charter of English Liberties. On that date, King John of England affixed his seal on the Magna Carta and formally accepted the principle of the rule of law, specific and sweeping limitations on his royal power.
In place of my regular Monday Commentary, I am proud to present the speeches given by my students on the occasion of the 800th anniversary celebration of the Magna Carta on my campus, the California State University, San Bernardino.
I have “crowed” from time to time that I have never missed posting a Monday Commentary in years. That would be nine years of uninterrupted weekly commentaries (as some would affectionately call them “sermons’) to date.
Well, that claim ends today, June 15, 2015.
I can think of no better occasion or time to yield the floor to the younger generation and watch them carry the torch and march onward in the defense of the rule of law and the liberties we hold so dear as free human beings and Americas.
This is one of my proudest moments as a university professor. I can imagine no greater honor than seeing my students rise up to uphold the principle of the rule of law, a principle to which I have dedicated my life.
I am a great fan of the Magna Carta. I developed an appreciation for the rule of law at a very tender age. I have told my story in my commentary, “A Magna Carta for Ethiopia”, which, I am proud to say, is posted on the official website of the Magna Carta Committee operating under the Magna Carta Trust.
I am a fan of the Magna Carta for two reasons.
First, The Magna Carta marks the first time in recorded human history in which the ruled told their rulers what to do and not do. That is a revolutionary concept — timeless, ageless and deathless . I wish to see it practiced widely in Africa, particularly in my birth country of Ethiopia.
Second, the Magna Carta means the rule of law, which means right makes might. The weak shall not fear the strong. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “Where there is the rule of law, there is liberty. Where there is liberty, governments fear the people. When governments fear the people, the bell tolls for tyranny.”
I believe I am right in claiming that our university is the only institution of higher education in the United States to hold a major student-sponsored celebratory event (we prefer to call it a birthday party) for the Magna Carta. I am prepared to stand corrected if our claim can be disproved.
I am deeply grateful to the students who organized the Magna Carta celebrations on our campus. I give the students full credit for managing, coordinating and organizing the event. They went out and obtained the funding; they arranged the facilities; they managed the advertising; they provided the technical support and they did all the presentations. I just watched them in amazement and awe as they went about doing their thing. I am grateful to them for letting me be part of their event as their adviser.
I am especially grateful to our students for taking on the added responsibility of the Magna Carta event in addition to all of their other responsibilities.
Some of the student participants are taking double the normal college course load. Some of them are taking extremely challenging seminars with an extraordinarily heavy load of reading and writing assignments. (They know that I am completely deaf when it comes to complaints about reading long articles and writing long research papers, legal briefs, critical reviews of court decisions, commentaries and much more.) Some of them are doing both and carrying additional responsibilities by serving as student leaders on campus and working to support themselves. They all went “above and beyond the call of duty” in their preparation for the event. Despite the extraordinary demands and limited time they had to prepare, all of them delivered outstanding presentations.
I am very proud of them!
I am also proud to say that the CSUSB students who presented in the Magna Carta celebrations, and many others like them, will be the guardians and defenders of American liberties for decades to come. They will be the torch bearers and beacons of our constitutional liberties.
But I believe they will be and do much more than that. They will be defenders of human rights and human dignity all over the world.
I have no doubts that they will one day be the strong and unsilenceable voices for the unheard, the ignored, the defenseless and powerless from America to Zimbabwe.
California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) is “highest ranked” among public colleges and universities in the 2015 Best Colleges (West) rankings.
The student presenters in this event and many others like them are the reasons why CSUSB has consistently earned such high rankings.
The student presentations below have been edited for clarity and space; points omitted in the extemporaneous speeches have been included. A brief “bio” of each presenter is provided at the end.
What is the Magna Carta?
I know most of you probably already know what the Magna Carta is. And it is fine if you don’t know.
First, just to be clear, the Magna Carta I am going to talk about is not Jay Z’s latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.
I am going to talk about the 800 year old document. Magna Carta is Latin for “Great Charter.”
Think of it as a great Constitution. The story of the Magna Carta is interesting.
Sometime around 1209, English barons got restless. The Barons were the lowest level of English nobility. They were mostly soldiers. What caused great dissatisfaction among the barons was the way King John treated them.
King John was accountable to no one. He did whatever he wanted to do.
Let me tell you a little bit about King John.
King John was the youngest son of Henry II. Henry established a massive empire. When Henry’s son Richard (the Lionhearted) died in 1199, his brother John ascended the throne.
John soon became extremely unpopular for his unjust and abusive rule. John was a warmonger and fought wars in France which he lost along with much tax money he raised from the barons. To pay for his military adventures, John continued to hike taxes on the barons.
John used his sheriffs to jail anyone he did not like. He took away the barons’ horses and corn at will. He would sell justice to the highest bidder.
King John was so greedy that he would forcibly take land, horses, carts, corn, and wood of his subjects with due process of law, which means arbitrarily. Just because he can.
In 1209, the barons decided to stop King John’s arbitrary rule.
They came up with a brilliant idea. They decided to limit King John’s power to those they allowed him to have in a document they wrote.
They made him an offer he can’t refuse.
They called him to a meeting in a place called Runnymede, a meadow 20 miles west of London.
There they sprung it on him on June 15, 1215. They handed him the Magna Carta and asked him to sign, that is put his seal on it.
There was no negotiation. No talking. Just a royal seal.
If King John did not go along, he would face rebellion and civil war.
John did not have the resources to fight. He had recently lost a war to the French. He accepted reluctantly.
What did John get himself into by putting his seal on the Magna Carta?
Actually, King John got himself into a bit pickle.
He agreed to recognize and accept a whole slew of liberties and limitations on his powers.
He agreed not to demand taxes unless approved by the common council of the kingdom..
He agreed to hold regular courts and not run his own personal court where he sold justice to highest bidder.
He agreed not to fine the people for every little thing.
He agreed to prohibit his “sheriffs, constables, coroners, bailiffs from running their own shows”.
He agreed not to take anyone’s corn or other goods, without instantly paying for them” or without their consent of the owners.
He agreed not to jail people just because he did not like them.
He agreed that anyone he accused of committing will be tried with evidence from witnesses, not just the words of the his sheriffs.
He agreed to stop jailing any person except by judgment of his peers.
He agreed not to “sell… deny… or delay right or justice.”
He agreed to allow free travel for any person and not exile them.
He agreed to appoint only sheriffs who knew the laws of the land.
He agreed to pay restitution to anyone unlawfully disposed of property.
He agreed to the appointment of “twenty-five barons [elected freely] who shall with their whole power, observe, keep, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties which we have granted to them [in the Magna Carta].
By forcing King John to agree to these terms in the Magna Carta, the barons established 2 things: 1) they imposed their will on the king (it has always been that kings imposed their will on the people); and 2) The King’s power were limited by the law of the land.
The Manga Carta is important because it is part of the foundation of our constitutional system.
Nearly six centuries after it was written, the Magna Carta became an inspiration for angry American colonists who declared their own independence from England.
The founding fathers were clear that they were fighting for the privileges bestowed on them by the Magna Carta.
They believed themselves to be Englishmen entitled to English rights. If they were denied those rights, just like the Barons, they would have their own Magna Carta or rebellion. They issued their Declaration of Independence, and the words of Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, and women might I add –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People, it is their duty to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
The Declaration meant revolution.
Many of the revolutionary ideas of the Founders have roots in the Manga Carta.
For instance, the concept of no taxation without representation for the American colonists came from Article 12 in the Magna Charter.
Many of the freedoms we have today, freedoms many Americans take for granted, have roots in the Magna Carta. Among these are security of property, equality before the law and jury trials.
Our ideas of representative democracy has its origins in the Magna Carta. The institution of the 25 elected barons in Article 25 of the Magna Carta is the foundation of parliamentary democracy and our own system with a dominant legislative body.
I wonder if there could have been the U.S. Constitution without the Magna Carta? Maybe?
Would it be the same? Probably not. That’s like asking if there could be a U.S. Constitution without the declaration of independence.
The Declaration did for the founding fathers of our country what the Magna Carta did for the barons.
Before the Declaration, the colonists petitioned King George. The English king and Parliament were limiting the liberties of the colonists. They had the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Act and others. King George would not allow the colonists to enjoy freedom of assembly, speech, press or even jury trials.
The American revolutionists were inspired by the Magna Carta. What choice did they have?
It was not like they could pick up their things and go meet King George at Runnymede.
George Washington certainly was not going to row his boat on the Delaware River to meet King George.
So do I think there could have been a U.S. Constitution without the Magna Carta? Maybe.
But it wouldn’t be as dynamic or far reaching.
Let me conclude with a few observations.
First, the Magna Carta is not perfect; not even close.
It did not include the commoners and those toiling on the land from dawn to dusk.
It even had some strange provisions about women. It said “no widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband.” A widow needs permission from the king if she chooses to remarry!
It is true that the Magna Carta was just for the barons. But it would be wrong to look at the Magna Carta with a narrow lens.
If we use a wide angle lens, we can appreciate that at its core, the Magna Carta is about the rule of law. It is about the principle that no man is above the law.
As we celebrate the Magna Carta, we also celebrate our Constitution because ultimately the U.S. Constitution is also about the rule of law.
Let me conclude with the memorable words of Thomas Jefferson. “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people there is liberty.”