The name Magna Carta is Latin for “Great Charter”, and in 1215 it established the following principles:
- everyone is subject to the law, even the King,
- individuals have rights,
- everyone has the right to justice,
- and everyone has the right to a fair trial.
The Magna Carta recognized individual responsibility in all, including the King, and it established that the law “should” be applied to everyone equally. Obviously, recognizing a principle is not the same as implementing one, but as of 1215, the divine right of kings was no longer the governing principle, well, at least for some kings and most scholars.
Fundamentally, democracy means that the power of the state comes from the people and not from God, nor the divine right of Kings. Although the Magna Carta did not establish democracy, the principle that their is a law of the land (due process) that applies to all is a cornerstone s of applying the law equally and of individual rights is a fundamental aspect of bottom-up democracy established in 1215.
Slow Start-Long Legs
The Magna Carta was reluctantly signed by King John on June 15, 1215. Although King John convinced Pope Innocent III to void the Magna Carta only 10 weeks after signing it, both King John and Pope Innocent would die the next year. King John’s eldest son, King Henry III, was only 9 years old when he became King on 28 Oct 1216 and the Magna Carta was reissued. The Magna Carta would go on to become a negotiating tool between the King and his Barons. When King Henry III turned 18 years old, he agreed to abide by the new release of the Magna Carta, and it was more or less the law of the land for the next century, and then off and on over the next 4 centuries. It became a seminal legal document when Sir Edward Coke used it extensively in the 17th century. (Sir Edward Coke was a mentor to Roger Williams.)
United States Constitution: 5th Amendment
The 5th Amendment guarantees that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. This phrase was derived from Magna Carta! As a reminder, the Constitution is law. In fact, it is the supreme law of the land. In fact, the federal, state, and local laws cannot be in conflict with constitutional law.
Above The Law
It is true that with absolute power comes absolute corruption. It’s also true that many leaders since 1215 have thought they were above the law either entirely or partially including Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump.
In modern times, we still struggle with this basic equality. Richard Nixon thought as President he was 100% above the law and famously said so on camera,
“…when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” -Richard Nixon, 1975
This quote is from the Frost interviews which took place in 1975. Here is a video clip:
Like Nixon, Donald Trump believes or acts like he is at least partially above the law. It’s also true that it is difficult to tell the difference between an honest leader who believes the President is above the law, and a corrupt leader. Trump is clearly a very corrupt human. No doubt. It could be that Trump knows the law applies to the President but that his corruption of breaking and skirting the law for his own benefit is just who he is. Either way, it doesn’t matter whether he believes the President is above the law, or is just a corrupt human. The effect is the same.
As time rolls on, I’m sure leaders here and there will think they are above the law either partially or wholly. In a democracy, the power of leaders comes from the people so it is up to the people to check a leader who believes or acts above the law.
The Devine Right of Kings
The Devine Right of Kings led to a class-system built within it. Those in power hoped to improve our lot in life. Those not in power hoped to gain power.
America’s Devine Right of the Rich
The Devine Right of Kings reminds me of how we Americans treat the rich. We have a tendency to forgive rich people of white-collar crimes. Why? Well, I think it’s because just like the class-system built within the Devine Right of Kings, we hope to improve our lot in life. I think the Magna Carta got it right. The law should apply to everyone equally.