THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

29 April 2015

Magna Carta's Americas Adventure

Us-bill-of-rights-magna-carta-british-library-law-legacy-liberty (cr Clare Kendall)

Above: The Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights being installed in Magna Carta [photo by Clare Kendall]

Those of you who have visited the Magna Carta exhibition already will note the attention given to how the document influenced the development of global legal frameworks, perhaps most notably in the US. As a result, this document has not just had a profound effect upon the development of the UK but on the growth of many other states around the world.

Indeed, the effect of Magna Carta not just on the US but the Americas more broadly is worth noting. One of the aims of the Magna Carta was to strengthen traditional English customs against the tyranny of King John, the most notable being the right to Habeas Corpus (essentially, protection against illegal detention). The mutually beneficial relationship between Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus (which is not just legal but also rhetorical - a powerful imaginative force) was used to great effect in the protection of former slaves who had made it to England from the Caribbean in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: frontispiece from Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative' [BL: 1489.g.50] 

One particularly famous example is recounted by Olaudah Equiano in his 'Interesting Narrative' [BL: 1489.g.50]. Here a man named John Annis is protected from the machinations of a St. Kitts trader by the granting of Habeas Corpus and, while not all received Annis' protection, the law was an important part of maintaining the freedom of those formerly enslaved who made it to London.

In Canada the Magna Carta has, perhaps, had structural legal impacts on a par with the US (without the revolution). The early governor John Graves Simcoe arrived in Canada with a strong belief in Magna Carta and the possibility of founding an ideal colony in Upper Canada. From Fort York Simcoe set up some of Canada's earliest democratic structures and also attempted to ban slavery in the colony. You can find out more about Simcoe at the British Library as we hold various manuscript papers and illustrations belonging to him and his family.

After the Seven Years War the Royal Proclamation of 1763 sought to extend Magna Carta-like protections to the First Peoples of North America. The Proclamation enfranchised right to land and secured other legal freedoms in the face of settler encroachment but also sowed dissent among colonists and was a significant contributor to the subsequent rebellion. However, the Proclamation is, arguably, still legally valid in Canada and remains an important link between many First Peoples communities and the British Crown. For many Canadians the Magna Carta is also still relevant as it directly informed the 1982 'Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms'. This, in turn, has been argued to resemble how a common law charter would look if it were drawn up today.

BL shop (Magna Carta)

Above: goodies in the BL shop - note the baseballs [photo by PJH]

For all of this the most profound global example of the influence of Magna Carta remains its role in the US. Whether it's the writings of men such as William Penn, the invocation of the Magna Carta by the Founding Fathers or the famous visit of the document to the New York World's Fair in 1939 (all of which are detailed in the exhibition), the gathering at Runnymede looms large in American history. The Eccles Centre will be hosting a discussion about the link between Magna Carta and the U.S. on 1st June and it promises to be an enlightening addition to the exhibition, which runs until 1st September. You can also see the continuing relationship between Magna Carta and the U.S. in our shop - my favourites are the Declaration of Independence baseballs...

[PJH]

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