November 13, 2014
Why Americans love the Magna Carta: from Thomas Jefferson to Jay Z
The Telegraph, Thursday 13th November.
As one of four surviving original manuscripts goes on display in Washington, we trace the role of the Magna Carta through US history.
When Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on a chat show in New York last year only to be quizzed about the signing of the Magna Carta, he seemed perplexed. He shouldn’t have been.
The charter drawn up by 40 rebellious barons at Runnymede in 1215 to assert their individual rights is revered by Americans, who see it as an inspiration for their own constitution despite the fact that the United States didn’t exist until some 550 years after the Magna Carta was signed.
The Magna Carta’s influence on American culture can be seen in everything from the Bill of Rights to the title of a recent Jay Z album.
To understand why, you’ve got to start at the very beginning.
Magna Carta and the Mayflower:
When pilgrims began leaving Britain for North America in the 17th century, they wanted the rights that were guaranteed to them as British subjects to follow them to the New World.
As a result, America’s early colonies established charters guaranteeing certain fundamental liberties to those who settled there.
These charters were, unsurprisingly, modelled after the Magna Carta, which could have reasonably been described as America’s founding document – at least until the ratification of the US Constitution in 1790.
Magna Carta and the American Revolution:
It was no coincidence that when residents of Boston first took up arms against the crown, the seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony included the image of a militiaman with sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other.
Both the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” and the declaration that even the king must be subject to the law could be traced back to Runnymede.