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March 11, 2015

Secret WWII plans to give America a copy of Magna Carta go on show at British Library

The Telegraph, 11th March
By Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent.

Secret plans to give a copy of Magna Carta to the United States in return for its support in the Second World War are to be put on display for the first time a new exhibition telling the story of the historic document.

The documents, drawn up at the height of the Blitz, show how politicians considered giving a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta to America to help persuade the public to support the war effort.

Annotated by Sir Winston Churchill, the proposals were released by the National Archive in 2007 and have never been on display before.
They will now go on show to the public at the British Library as part of its major new exhibition into Magna Carta and democracy.

The papers show how the idea was described by one official as the ”only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country”.

It was dreamt up after the US Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, offering material support to the UK in its fight against the Nazis, and was intended to help mobolise public American opinion in favour of intervening in the war.

The Whitehall documents claim the US action is ”based on enlightened self-interest”, but ”none the less represents a landmark in the history of liberty”.

It goes on to say that Britain, as ”principal beneficiary” of lend-lease, should present the document to the US, which has ”few monuments to the past” but traces its own concept of liberty back to the medieval agreement.

It adds: ”Its inhabitants live almost entirely in the present and they crave tangible evidence of their early European background much as the nouveau riche crave ancestors”.

The plan was later cancelled when it emerged none of the surviving documents were the property of the Government that wanted to hand them over.

Two original copies of the 1215 document will go on show at the British Library exhibition, called Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, from this Friday along with Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and a copy of the Bill of Rights.

Julian Harrison, co-curator of the exhibition, said: ”We hope that, by seeing Magna Carta alongside other documents it has inspired – including the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights – our visitors will be encouraged to reflect on the charter’s influence over the past 800 years and what it means to them today.

”Magna Carta established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law and that nobody, not even the king, was above the law, principles that we often take for granted.”

The exhibition is open from March 13 to September 1.

Click here to read this article as it appeared in the Daily Telegraph.



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