What Magna Charta Means to Americans

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.

The International Magna Charta Day Association

By Don MacRaild

During the late 1890s, more than a century of frosty relations between Britain and the United States came to an end. The origins of the much-vaunted ‘special relationship’ can arguably be dated to 1898, when Britain supported America’s vanquishing of the last remnants of the Spanish Empire in Cuba and the Philippines, and 1899-1902, when the US was alone among the primary nations in supporting Britain in the Boer War. Simultaneously, the rise of powers like Germany, Japan and Russia also encouraged a vision of an Anglo-Saxon world order in which the unity of America, Britain, and the wider English-speaking world guaranteed strength through commonality of interests.

During this period, symbols of unity became popular, none more so than the Magna Charta. Commentators were keen to stress how this ancient assertion of baronial rights was in fact the seed-bed of modern democracy. The Boston Globe, 15 June 1893, captured it well: ‘The Magna Charta stands for the first agreement of a European monarch to abide by a signed and sealed abridgement of his prerogatives. From this notable beginning we have advanced to popular democracy, and are not so very far off the achievement of universal suffrage, for men and women alike.’ In this new world of Anglo-American unity, Magna Charta became the founding text from which Americans’ own founding document, the American Constitution, had sprung.

The importance of Magna Charta is attested to by J.W. Hamilton’s formation of the International Magna Charta Association (IMCA) in 1907. Before the Great War (1914-18), Hamilton had hoped that the unity of the English-speaking people would yield peace. Instead, it had provided strength in war. The years after 1918 were echoed with chilling reminders of the awful destruction of war and, once more, peace became the noble desire of the IMCA. As article (b) of the ICMA’s objectives put it, the association was intended to ensure ‘holding more closely together and … permitting no enemy to sow seeds of trouble between us.’[1]

How were these aspirations realised? Needing a focal point for its energies, the IMCA suggested the institution of ‘Magna Charta Day’—not a new, or replacement, public holiday, but an optional day when Britons could celebrate the moment, on 15 June 1215, when King John set his seal to the great charter. Pennsylvania’s Oil City Derrick, 29 August 1928, taking inspiration from the 4 July, called it Inter-dependence Day.

By the 1930s, Magna Charta Day enjoyed the sponsorship of many churches: the Anglican Synod in Australia, the Episcopalian Church in Canada, the Presbyterian assemblies of Canada, United States and Ireland, and the National Council of the Free Churches in Great Britain, the Methodist Episcopal Churches in the United States. Such commitment was matched locally, with Presbyterians in Canada and Methodists in Oregon joining churches of every description in committing the principle of celebration, because, as Rev. Dr Henry Howard of St John the Divine Presbyterian Church in New York commented: ‘My friends, Magna Charta rests upon the greatest charter of all, the word of God.’[2] In 1928, the congregants of the Memorial Church, Hobart, Australia, were treated to a sermon on ‘International Friendship’.[3] In the same year, Magna Charta day also entered the St George’s Society calendar and was specifically being sponsored in the 1920s by the IMCA in Australia. The Association certainly convinced newspapers in places as diverse as Adelaide and Iowa that this was a worthy venture based on shared liberties enshrined at Runnymede.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the celebration of an annual Magna Charta Day touched hundreds of Anglo-world communities. Set against the rising forces of Communism and Fascism, these expressions of English-speaking unity must have provided some comfort. When war broke out in 1939, and after the USA joined the fray in 1941, the cultural meaning of Anglo-Saxon unity was once again expressed in political and military terms. Once again, Magna Charta and the American constitution became symbols of liberty and freedom that the Allies were fighting for. In a neat reminder of transatlantic unity one of the four extant copies of the Magna Charta was in the US for the World Trade Fair in 1939 when war broke out. Along with the American Constitution, it was placed in Fort Knox for safe-keeping.

After the war, Magna Charta Day celebrations were not revived in the same form, with Anglo-American unity developing in different ways. Cultural exchange flowed most dramatically from America to Britain, rather than the other way round, whilst the fundamental connections evinced by the IMCA were now reflected outwardly in organisations such as NATO.

This is not to say Magna Charta entirely lost its lustre. It did not. Americans continued to pay homage to it. The American Bar Association, for example, commissioned a monument for the site at Runnymede—a gift to mark the connection between their laws and ancient English ones. Tourists still flock to the hallowed site where King John was made to sign. In the 1950s, the National Library of Australia bought a 1297 version of the charter. In the 1980s, the American billionaire Ross Perot did the same. Each of these factors provided evidence of the continued importance of the symbolic connections which had been typified by J.W. Hamilton and his IMCA.

Only four 1215 copies of the Magna Charta exist today. This is the 2500-word document which has regularly been referred to as the foundation of modern law in the English-speaking world.

[1] Reported in the New Age Magazine, no. 31, 1 Jan 1923, p.374.

[2] Atlanta Constitution, 13 June 1926. Quotation in New York Times, 14 June 1926.

[3] Mercury (Hobart), 18 June 1928.