Starting Somewhere – great accomplishments emerging from modest beginnings
“ …we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …”
This was a majestic declaration that led and continues to lead to a noble and wonderful spirit in people and to many brave, astonishing, unselfish acts that give the gift of the knowledge and of the reality of these rights to millions of people and their progeny.
History provides us with many valuable and important lessons. Understanding the background and subsequent historic record behind the development of concepts like the “self-evident” truth of certain unalienable rights”, teaches the lesson that in accomplishing reforms: A start, even if modest and imperfect, is very important, you might even say essential. Such a lesson comes from the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta could be described as a self-serving tool of the rich and titled. Namely – Barons, Lords and Nobles. The Magna Carta was only in effect for a few months before being rendered invalid by the King who had agreed to it and signed it. But, despite the above valid characterization and abrupt dissolution it was a start of something great. The legacy of the Magna Carta is acclaimed and venerated in Britain and the United States. It is still held up as a beacon of liberty and has been cited by the Supreme Court over 100 times. Let’s examine its history and the lesson taught.
The Genesis of the Magna Carta
The middle ages in Europe is well known for its social, economic, and governmental system of feudalism. In simple terms feudalism was a class system. Serfs, peasants, and villeins resided at the bottom of this class system. These people worked the land for Nobles (Earls, Lords, Barons, etc.), who were given lands by a King to whom they promised allegiance (and a lot more). In addition to providing food and materials to the King, the Lords were required to raise and equip an army for the King when called upon (like for the Crusades), obey and fulfill a plethora of royal demands, pay general and special taxes, and pay large sums of money for “royal permission” to carry out common ordinary activities, like getting married or inheriting property from their relations. In turn, the Nobles, in exchange for providing land and protection for their serfs, exploited their serfs, taxed them heavily, restricted their freedoms, forced them to labor, and required them to serve when an army was to be raised.
Also, it is well known that often the Kings in the middle ages were notoriously bad. They were self-serving, excessively greedy, ruled capriciously, and often got into wars that cost their country and its people dearly. Nobles and peasants alike lost their lives and lands. One such “bad” King was King John of England, the brother of Richard I, (the Lionhearted) whom he succeeded in 1199, when Richard was killed in battle. King John was an abysmal King by just about any measure, (economically, militarily, and morally). The one thing he was good at was administration (i.e. raising funds for his use). He made excessive demands and squeezed every cent he could out of the Church and out of the Nobility. And his foreign policy was a disaster as he gave up lands to arch enemy France for essentially nothing. So it was that in January of 1215, after 16 years of pathetic Kingship, a number of the Earls, Lord’s and Baron’s as well as the Catholic Church Bishops in England got fed up with King John’s greedy despotism and submitted oral and written demands for reforms. This collection of Nobles banded together to ensure the demands were met by force if necessary. They formed “The Army of the Lord” to go up against the King and the King’s forces. The King’s forces were paid foreign mercenaries and some powerful nobles who remained loyal to King John in order to retain his favor.
The role of the Church in this match up and especially that of the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite significant. A very powerful and influential pope, Innocent III, had laid an interdict on England in 1208. An interdict was a directive or ruling from the Pope on religious matters. This interdict took away the English people’s access to the Sacraments and their rights to a Christian burial. The punishment came about because King John wanted to and did appoint his own English Bishops. But Pope Innocent III would not approve them and King John ignored the pope. Can you imagine how devastating the Pope’s decree would be to believers? Further, the Pope subsequently, in 1209, excommunicated King John when John would not accept the Pope’s appointment of Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The opportunistic King, during this falling out with the Pope, proceeded to appropriate the Church’s considerable wealth and property throughout Great Britain. However, later in 1213 when John was in dire straits financially and was being badgered for concessions by his Nobles he pulled a rabbit out of his hat, duplicitously claiming that he was; “returning to obedience to the church”, and “taking up the cross” (that is pledging to the Pope to lead an army on a crusade). This pledge to the Pope resulted in the Pope relieving King John from his debts, giving him a 3-year grace period to fulfill any obligations he may promise the Nobles and promising his favor in the King’s current dispute with the Nobles. The King’s gambit worked, the unethical, adaptable, political Pope was so focused on mounting another Crusade, that he endorsed the avaricious, duplicitous King John in his dispute with the Barons and the English Bishops. Pope Innocent III even threw Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton under the bus, telling Langton and the other English Bishops, whom John had ransacked, to now accede to this malevolent King’s wishes. Oh, and by the way, King John never did “return to obedience” and lead that promised crusade.
But the English Bishops and especially Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, also pretty much ignored the Pope and worked towards negotiating concessions from the King. In fact, Arch-Bishop Stephen Langton negotiated the whole affair. So, with this peek of the Church’s role in the event, let us return to the clash between the King and his Nobles that lead to the signing of the Magna Carta.
After giving the King a written set of demands (limitation of his powers) during the winter of 1214-15 and subsequently chasing the King and his entourage around great Britain trying to pin him down and gain some concessions, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton and the force led by the discontented Lords (the “Army of the Lord”) cornered the King just outside London. The set of demands that had been given to the to the King in 1214 was the forerunner of the actual Magna Carta, it was known as the “Unknown Charter” because what was in it was “unknown” until it was located in France in 1863. Once pinned down and facing the pursuing Army, the King agreed to meet the discontented Barons and Lords at a large open meadow called Runnymede. There, in 1215 at a meeting convened and lead by Stephen Langton, the King and his advisors read and assented to a newly prepared set of demands from the Nobles, which became known as the Magna Carta (the Great Charter). ——– That is how the Magna Carta came to be. —–So what was in it?
Content of the Magna Carta
Just what was in the Magna Carta that has made it such a revered document with respect to promoting individual liberty? Well, surprisingly it was primarily a “Benefit Package” for the Nobility. But there were a couple of seeds of hope for the rights of common man scattered among these concessions to the privileged class. These nascent steps toward individual rights is what historians source as credence to the Magna Carta’s weighty role in promoting individual rights.
The Magna Carta consisted of 63 articles covering such matters as limits on payments to the King, inheritance law, policing of the royal forest, controls on military service required of the Nobles, and “respect” for independence of the Church. Almost all of these 63 articles related to the pecuniary relationship between the Nobility and the king, (e.g., how much money the King was to be paid when land was passed to an heir). Many of the demands dealt with very mundane activities, which revealed how the King had been imposing his will arbitrarily and capriciously on the Nobles (e.g. the taking of timber from their lands, seizing horses and carts for transportation, imposing arbitrary fines, requiring a bridge to be built, etc.).
The point to grasp here, is that the Magna Carta, a document now recognized as a forerunner to establishing the concept of the individual’s liberties and rights under a government, was chiefly an agreement between one extremely powerful, very rich King and a bunch of other influential rich guys. Further, within a few months the King reneged on the whole thing and war broke out between the Barons and the King’s Army comprised chiefly of the King’s Foreign mercenaries. The Magna Carta agreement had little to do with the common person who tilled the land, fought and died in the ill-conceived wars, and lived from hand to mouth. Viewed in the light of what we now all believe, understand, and demand today with respect to individual rights and freedoms it could have been relegated to an after thought. And you can be assured, that the contents of this agreement, (if put out in advance of its signature for “public comment”) would have been ridiculed and “raked over the coals” by the surplus of “political” critics and the modern media if there had been such entities in those days.
But wait!! As we will see it was a start!! Buried within that plethora of Royal vs Noble fiscal finagling, there were two clauses that were indeed monumental precursors to the later granting of “freedoms and individual rights”. Articles 38 and 39 were substantive with respect to the future of individual liberties. One article required that “accusations alone were not adequate to “put a man to law” (convict). Trustworthy witnesses were required. And the second of these important articles demanded that a “legal judgment of peers” was required for conviction of a “free man”.
These two articles were preserved though later charters and they formed the foundation of the need for witnesses (rather than being found guilty just on the basis of an accusation) and of the right of trial by a jury of your peers.
With regard to respecting the independence of the Church from the King, the very first article of the Magna Carta stated that: “The English Church should be free and have its rights in full and its liberties intact”. This article illustrated the strong influence that the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who negotiated the proceedings, had on the outcome.
Despite the fact that this specific agreement, the actual Magna Carta, was discarded and voided by the extremely powerful king two months after it had been made, it is credited with being the foundation of the development of our country’s declaration of individual rights and a government of the people by the people and for the people. The principle of individual rights is now a nearly universally accepted norm among nations with non-totalitarian governments. Why! Because once the idea of negotiating for fair treatment and insisting on liberties was started and some of those liberties were put in writing, they were able to resurface, be referenced, added to, and strengthened in future negotiations with rulers, both authoritarian and fair-minded.
Reflecting on the history of the Magna Carta and its ultimate significance, two realities are evident.
The first reality is that societal advancements, (as well as advancements in every aspect of human endeavor), do not generally appear complete and in their fully developed state. It takes time, sometimes centuries, to build on the idea, for advancements to be made and for a reform/concept to come to full fruition. Further, there may be setbacks along the way that have to be overcome. The origination and implementation of the concept that: “……we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, can be traced from citizenship in the Roman Empire to the Magna Carta (1215) to John Locke’s (1690) treatise, to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and then to the Civil War (1865) and it continues today. Reforms / improvements typically start somewhere and build on the underlying concept or principle.
The second reality, very much in evidence in our current litigious and partisan culture, is that when a good or potentially great idea or concept is introduced (in its incomplete or yet to be fully developed state) it becomes a target, ripe for being condemned, criticized and even mocked. Condemnation and criticism is in vogue – if there is something that can be singled out as a potential problem or something can be claimed as an ulterior motive for the idea – that is what gets the attention – not the potential value or good in the idea. I can just imagine the critique (mocking, condemning and belittling), that the Magna Carta would have gotten by the equivalent of our current media. The headline would likely have been: “King grants Millions in concessions to rich, greedy Nobles and Barons”. A comparable act in our day might read: “Government grants Billions in tax concessions to Wall Street and big money Corporations.” A parallel in our society could be the “all” powerful commissioner of the NFL meeting with the rich and influential owners of the NFL teams and announcing a new agreement that included Television Revenues being increased by 50% as “really important in the annals of history”. That effort would be mocked and ridiculed. But what if, like the Magna Carta the agreement also initiated an important reform, (e.g. – kicking off an independent player health and safety evaluation in each organization) and that nascent health and safety reform ultimately lead to a comprehensive protocol that reduced long term injury rates by 200%.)
The net result of a “hypercritical”, highly partisan environment is that any idea must overcome a legion of obnoxious, illogical, objections that are raised. So, there may be challenges, constraints, and hurdles to leap, but without starting somewhere the likelihood is that nothing will get done. In our complex society making a change almost certainly will not be equally favorable for everyone. Demeaning nascent attempts of improvement because they are inadequate, incomplete or flawed is easy but shortsighted. So the lesson from history is START – put your idea forward and stick with it and if it doesn’t fully blossom right away – don’t worry, future generations may pick it up and run with it!
There are many examples of “reforms” or “changes” that began with modest beginnings here is perhaps the most significant modest beginning ever the birth of the Christian Religion.
Christianity – When I give the children in our church an overview of the history of Christianity – Old Testament – New Testament and on to the Present Day – I always ask how many Christians there were just after Jesus died on the Cross and rose again 3 days later. The answer, of course was only 2 or 3 – or perhaps a maximum of about 14. That is because, a Christian is, by definition, one who believes that Christ died on the cross for their sins. So those few followers who had paid attention to Jesus when He told them of God’s plan for salvation, (a person just needs to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins), became the first Christians. Because when Jesus arose on Easter morning, by golly they believed what He had said. Within a few weeks after Jesus appeared to a number of people the ranks of Christians had “swelled” to perhaps 20 or 30. A very modest start. Further the Gospel message “of grace” – you did not have to earn your salvation it was a free gift, was regarded as “folly” to Jew and Gentile alike. Regardless from this meager start Christianity spread throughout the World and now has 2.4 Billion adherents.