The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter”, celebrated its 800th birthdaylast month. King John of England, an absolute monarch, signed the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215 in order to end the rebellion of a group of barons who had tired of his abuses. Under the English system at the time, the King was considered above the law and had virtually no limits imposed on his exercise of power. As in any system of government in which limits are not placed on power, the citizens suffered.
This ancient charter is one of the most important political developments in English history and indeed Western constitutional history. The creation of the Magna Carta closely mirrors that of the United States’ foundation nearly 600 years later. In both instances, groups of educated and civic-minded men stood up against an oppressive government not only for their own benefit, but to improve the livelihoods and guarantee the freedoms of all citizens. Just as the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of all Americans, the Magna Carta protected the rights of all Englishman for centuries.
Similarly, the most significant measures of the Magna Carta are reflected in the US Constitution. Like the Constitution, the charter protects basic human rights: life, liberty, and property (a phrase found in the work of notable English philosopher John Locke, as well as the Fifthand FourteenthAmendments). The charter protected personal property, placed limits on taxation, prohibited people from being wrongly imprisoned, and ensured that citizens had an expeditious judicial process,. The Magna Carta was the first time personal property rights were legally protected from an overreaching government.
The rights outlined in the Magna Carta are what allowed some European and Anglophone countries to consider the rule of law as well as the balance of power and property rights as pillars for preserving freedom against authoritarianism. Property rights have been defined since the 13th century. Man has an inherent right to what he creates and it cannot be taken from him, whether it be a farmer’s crop or an author’s pages, an artist’s painting or an engineer’s program. The codification of property rights has spurred man to innovate and create: the reason the West has housed great innovators and made huge discoveries is because men can freely reap the fruits of their labor without fear of seizure by the government.
According to the International Property Rights Index, the United States is ranked third in the world for intellectual property and property rights, with some of the strongest protections around. Without the precedent that Magna Carta set, the U.S. may not be the temple of innovation and intellectual freedom that it is today.