Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The Magna Carta and Our Vote

“It’s just one vote.”

That’s not what King John thought when he was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

King John was the perfect picture of an absolute dictator and he had wanted it to stay that way.  John came into power by murdering the expected heir to the throne, his nephew Arthur – or so it was rumored.

King John promptly laid an oppressive level of taxation on his people. Anyone who complained was taken before the courts. As king he ruled the courts, and everyone who lost a case in his courts had to pay exorbitant fines to his appointed sheriffs and bailiffs in order to be released from his prisons. The king’s sheriffs and bailiffs were uniformly corrupt because he sold those royal positions for the best price he could get.

When the royal fines, levies and taxes were not enough, he forced his barons and their vassals into war to protect the lands he already had and to get even more. When a loyal baron died in battle, King John would sell to the highest bidder the right to marry the baron’s widow and thus take on all of the dead baron’s titles and feudal estates. If the widow objected, he would kidnap her children and put her into a dungeon until she either changed her mind or died.

Understandably, the barons wanted to kill King John and had begun a civil war with that intention. King John, of course, wanted to keep the power to do whatever he wanted, and the leading churchman, Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted them all to follow God’s law, have a peaceable reconciliation, and provide an orderly form of government for their vassals.

After the barons succeeded in capturing London, they consented with Stephen to meet the king in the meadow at Runnymeade and, if King John agreed to their 63 demands --and especially their proposed mechanism for holding the king accountable to them-- they agreed they would end the civil war and once again swear loyalty to the king.

To encourage King John’s signature and to persuade him not to spring a trap of his own at Runnymeade, all around the edges of the bowl-shaped pasture rose the British fighting men, particularly the Scots, the brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and nephews of the women and children whom King John had consigned to the hell of his dungeons and the rapine of his mortgaged marriages.

King John was thus forced to sign the Magna Carta, written by Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury, in June of the year 1215, and with his signature he made the royal family subject to the rule of law, and accountable to the people through the first-ever representative democracy. The longest and most important portion of the Great Charter was the "security clause" in clause 61, which established a committee, a parliament, of 25 Barons who could at any time meet and VOTE to over-rule the will of the King, by seizing his castles and possessions with force if needed. The interlocking concepts of servant leadership were abhorrent to King John and to every tyrant since him.

The Magna Carta may be eight centuries old but it is still the document our courts refer to when they discuss “the Law of the Land.” The U.S. Supreme Court has cited the Magna Carta in support of its rulings scores of times in the past half-century, most recently in Southern Union Co. v. United States, 567 U.S. ___ 1194 (June 21, 2012). The Supreme Court has continued to cite the Magna Carta so often, even in recent history, because: “we are heirs to a tradition given voice 800 years ago by Magna Carta, which, on the barons’ insistence, confined executive power by ‘the law of the land.’” Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507, 552 (2004)

We still have warriors who wield against the kings of our government the power created by the Magna Carta, the power of the ballot. You can be one of those warriors we now call “citizens” and “voters.”

It’s just one vote --- and it makes you more powerful than a king.