A mere 793 years ago today, a group of English nobleman cornered King John on a peaceful sward in England's green and pleasant land persuaded him to sign Magna Carta, generally considered the first document of freedom in the Western world.
Magna Carta limited certain kingly rights, most notably that of habeas corpus. It began the gradual process of the sharing of royal power with a body of subjects and, by the time of the English Civil War, became a rallying point for those espousing ideas that would eventually lead to the modern concept of democracy embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
(In one of the more amusing moments in the history of references to the foundational agreement, Margaret Thatcher, in sniffing at the awe in which we hold our Declaration -- well, some of us, anyway -- reminded us that what she called "the Great Charter" antedated it for several hundred years, eschewing, in her hidebound Englishness, even the Latin name by which we know it.)
What better way to celebrate the Magna Carta anniversary than to have dodged yet another Republican bullet aimed at the heart of our freedoms with the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision reintroducing the idea of habeas corpus into our legal lexicon? Well, perhaps a better way is to ponder how close a call it was, and what danger our founding freedoms remained exposed to.
Even the original home of Magna Carta is having a hard time holding on to the principle of habeas corpus. Under the shadow of the threat of terrorism, a shadow at least partly cast by the leaders of our governments, the British and American people are once again united in a fight to regain and preserve rights our leaders would remove from us. Take a moment on this anniversary to reflect upon how we must re-fight for our rights in each generation. I'm sure your father would not mind sharing the day.
The next time you are in London, drop into the British Library and see copies of the great work. And the next time you're in Washington, drop into the National Archives display of the only permanent copy to be housed in this country, alongside its descendants, the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But even this Magna Carta recently dodged a bullet, when its owner, the Perot Foundation, decided to sell it. Happily, it has been restored to public display. Let us hope that the restoration of the rights that found their original expression in Magna Carta may continue, and even expand to those in our nation who have been excluded from their blessings.