By Don MacRaild
David Cameron’s failure to recall the meaning of the Latin phrase Magna Charta (‘Great Charter’) received widespread news coverage (see for example The Telegraph or BBC Magazine). One conclusion from the ink spilled was that Americans feel more affinity to Magna Charta than the English or British do. Is that so? And if so, why is it so?
In truth, the English have always been rather indifferent to their English identity. Englishness has always been better articulate beyond England’s shores by neo-English or neo-Britons in America and the colonies, for instance through the global tradition of St George’s societies. Matters of ethnic provenance, and what that ethnicity meant, always seemed more important in colonial melting pots than it did at home. The great imperial historian, J.R. Seeley, recognised this when, nearly 130 years ago, he stated in The Expansion of England (1883), that ‘the history of England is not in England, but in America and Asia’.
However, the American love of Magna Charta is about more than springing from English roots, and there is more to the American affinity for Magna Charta than ethnic identification with a single homeland. In one sense, a shared tradition of liberty passing back to 1215 is a truer manifestation of the ‘special relationship’ than an unbalanced military and strategic partnership. Magna Charta represents the beginning of a sinewy cultural connection.
Importantly, Magna Charta has acquired resonant meanings for Americans with no homeland associations with England or Britain. During the later 19th century, as I have explained earlier in an item on the International Magna Charta Day Association, Magna Charta became a keystone of American liberties—a document which Americans associated with as a precursor to their own Constitution. Americans fought to defend their liberties against what they saw as arbitrary British governance during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), and its words of liberty are enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution.
Later, Anglo-American relations improved and the frosty atmosphere of the 19th century gave way to a situation in which the English-speaking people would fight two global wars in defence of shared liberties. However, Magna Charta held a meaning to Americans which was independent of British aspects and did not require this rapprochement for it to thrive.
This is the context in which an even greater flowering of Magna Charta worship prevailed. In the early 20th century, Americans tied Magna Charta to their search for ethnic roots in the form of a variety of organisations which made the link real: the Baronial Order of Runnymede (1898), which is now the Baronial Order of Magna Charta, and the Magna Charta Dames (founded in 1909) provided associational contexts in which values of liberty and piety could be shared. The International Magna Charta Day Association (1907) organised annual celebrations in the US, Britain and around the English-speaking world, where Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and others demonstrated their own empathy with the great charter. In all cases, promotion of liberty was crucial.
Magna Charta connections also then became literal and physical. When WWII broke out, one of four copies of the Magna Charta was in the US for New York’s World Fair (1939). Because of the risk of transporting it back across the Atlantic, it was taken, with the American Constitution, to Fort Knox for safe-keeping, and it remained there for the duration of the war. In the 1950s, the American Bar Association paid for a monument to liberty and Magna Charta at Runnymede. American courthouses across the land depict the barons wresting powers from King John in 1215. And in the most remarkable example of individual Magna Charta appreciation, the billionaire businessman and politician, Ross Perot, bought a copy (dated 1297) and lent to the National Archives in Washington. He sold it in 2007 for over $20m. The purchaser, David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group, also lent it to the National Archives, where it remains to this day.