Magna Carta, 1776 and All That

Ambassador Matthew W. Barzun
British Library
London, UK

AMBASSADOR BARZUN: Good evening … And thank you for that generous introduction, Roly.

What an honor it is for me to give the Douglas W. Bryant Lecture, especially on its 20th anniversary.

What Roly didn’t say about Doug Bryant was that he lived in the Massachusetts town right next to where I grew up.

My hometown is Lincoln — not very well known in these parts or in America for that matter.

Mr. Bryant’s hometown, on the other hand, is known by every American schoolchild, and perhaps some of you have heard of it as well.

It’s called Lexington … and was where — when American revolutionaries could see the whites of certain red-clad soldiers’ eyes — the first shots were fired in a long-ago war.

Just an interesting fact.

And I’ll quickly mention another one in the spirit of balance.

This year is also the anniversary — the 200th – of the end of the War of 1812. That was the one when those red-clad soldiers took some revenge and burned down a certain white house.

I want to thank the teams at the British Library and the Eccles Centre for American Studies for organizing such a great event.

I’m disappointed, though, that my good friend Sir Robert Worcester–chair of the 800th Anniversary Committee—is unable to join us.

Bob (he insists I call him Bob) is, as most of you know, a renowned market researcher and recently collected some interesting data given our subject tonight.

His firm questioned 17,000 adults across 23 countries to gauge awareness of Magna Carta.

The country with the highest percentage of people saying they’d heard of it was, unsurprisingly, the UK at 79 percent.

Then it was the U.S. on 65 percent.  So we came in second.  Or first if you don’t count the home country.

But do you know who was last, with just six percent of people saying they’d heard of Magna Carta?  Six percent?

Want to guess?

I’ll tell you:  The French.

Just another interesting fact.

OK—as we approach the June anniversary of Magna Carta’s sealing, I sense that we’re at that point in the commemorations when everything’s been said, just not everyone’s said it.

So I hope you indulge me as I try something a little different.

Now it’s true that Magna Carta’s influence on America has been immense.

My own great x10 grandfather, John Winthrop—who in 1630 left England for a new life in the New World, in a city he named Boston–knew that a stable society was built on a fundamental law…

…and as Governor of Massachusetts he called for a law that was “in resemblance to a Magna Charta”…

So it began even before we were a country.

And we invoked the spirit of Magna Carta when we declared independence from this country…

…and turned to it when we built our new country.

First, as each former colony wrote their state constitutions…

…and then as the founding fathers drafted our federal constitution bringing those disparate states together in union.

Magna Carta has since been cited in more than 100 Supreme Court opinions.

In fact, the Court’s monumental doors show a depiction – cast in bronze – of King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede.

This is all wonderfully heady stuff.

But I want to look at Magna Carta’s legacy in a slightly different way.

And I’m going to do it by reference to another creation we imported from Britain: Whiskey.

At the beginning of the War of Independence then-General George Washington was concerned that his troops didn’t have enough liquor.

He actually suggested that public distilleries be constructed throughout the states because “the benefits arising from the moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed”.

So it could be said that if the ideals of independence were fueled by Magna Carta, the fight for independence was fueled by whiskey.

But I turn to whiskey not to extol its military merits.

Nor to get dragged into a debate about the relative merits of American and British versions—I am a diplomat after all.

And much less to attempt to resolve the dispute of whether you spell it with or without an ‘E’.

Rather, I think that the method of producing whiskey – regardless of what side of the Atlantic it’s done — can be a helpful model for thinking about how the principles enshrined in Magna Carta, liberty and the rule of law, have guided our nations and our pursuit of a more peaceful, more just world.

Too often, it’s tempting to imagine that these principles were sealed in parchment forever in 1215 and handed down like a recipe.

Or neatly packaged as a product and sent out for export–like a ready-made powder transported across oceans with the label: “Just add water.”

But that’s not at all how the history of Magna Carta transpired.

And it’s not at all how whiskey is made—not how the grain gets to the glass.

So bear with me here.

There are three stages to producing whiskey.

First, fermentation.

Combine whatever grains you find wherever you are, yeast, and water to form what’s called a mash, and let it all bubble up.

Stop here and you get:  Beer.  For something stronger you have to go to step two.

That is distillation — a refining process where you throw things out in pursuit of something cleaner and stronger.  Stop here and you get:  Vodka.

The final step is maturation.

Time is a part of it, yes. But not just time.  It’s time in a barrel, the liquid expanding and contracting in and out of the wood.

That’s what gives the distinct color, complexity, and character to whiskey.

So, just like with whiskey, the first step in the process towards realizing liberty and the rule of law — the “fermentation” if you will — started with the raw materials.

Because if we take a hard look at whether the heady ideals we now associate with Magna Carta are what it was all about back in 1215…

…the clear answer is no.

800 years ago, it was all pretty earthy stuff.

In its original form it is a confusing, bubbling soup—the mash if you will—of fermenting anger, distrust, hope, faith, belief, passion, rights, and wrongs.

Magna Carta is not a theoretical tract.

First & foremost it is a practical document conceding concrete remedies for real, daily abuses.

The fishweirs, the scutage, the escheats, the disafforestation of the 1215 Magna Carta became the beer, so to speak – and perhaps a very bitter one – that would much later yield something of greater character.

The legal scholar A.E. Dick Howard reminds us of this in his book on Magna Carta.

How we find ourselves today saying things like “as it says in Chapter 39 of Magna Carta” as though it had been written in nicely ordered chapters by authors conscious of compiling a “great work”.

In fact, back then there were no chapters, nor even the name Magna Carta.  That all came later.

And as we see with the 1297 version held at the National Archives in Washington DC and the many other iterations—Magna Carta evolved over the years.

Many times it was ripped up and re-written.

It was a living document – and the different interpretations over time reveal the early fermentation that would eventually result in the principles we hold so dear.

So now let’s fast forward past the Renaissance and early Enlightenment to 1776, by which time the fermentation process was very far along indeed, due in part to the masterful cooking of England’s great jurist, Sir Edward Coke.

And in America the raw ingredients had grown with new grievances.

Foremost among them, the American colonists wanted to be subject to the rule of law—not subjects of an arbitrary power.

They wanted to be full British citizens.

Now, in case you think this is the American Ambassador trying to paper over a rebellious power grab, I’ll call in a primary resource to try to prove my point.

Here’s what Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Randolph in 1775:

“There is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament proposes.”

Jefferson and his peers wanted to be endowed with the same rights and liberties flowing from Magna Carta as their cousins across the Atlantic.

They wanted a return to the rights guaranteed to British citizens, which our founding fathers considered themselves to be.

And as such—just as with Magna Carta—the Declaration of Independence Jefferson drafted. just a few months after he wrote that letter, was not only a statement of high ideals, but a list of specific grievances…

…or, as the drafters, put it: “A history of repeated injuries and usurpations”…

…which were recorded and accompanied with a demand for remedy.

Indeed, the list of George III’s injustices in the Declaration of July 1776—as the historian Ralph Turner points out—echoes provisions of Magna Carta.

And the over-riding theme of the colonists’ complaint was the failure of the King and Parliament to adhere to the concept first set out in Magna Carta.

The precept that a Sovereign—be it a monarch or a republican government—is bound by the law in dealing with its people.

And thus, the Declaration decried the King’s “establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states”.

Now back to our metaphor for a moment.

While the fermentation process is long and fitful, the distillation process is fast and intense.

And much is left behind in the bargain.

So it was when the flame of revolution was applied.

Once independence was won, it was from Magna Carta that the new nation sought inspiration and guidance.

Not only in specific principles of constitutional law, but also the larger ideals associated with the Charter as a whole.

The fledgling country staggered through years with the inadequate Articles of Confederation before the heroic Philadelphia convention of 1787.

And when those principles of liberty and the rule of law were consummated in a ratified constitution, the mash had been fully distilled to its core principles.

The distillation process was complete.

But maturity was still far off.

Our ability to live these principles has ever since undergone periods of expansion and contraction.

We have had to struggle over how to interpret them.

The first test was over taxes—surprise, surprise—and took place in 1791.

There was a revolt in the Western lands during George Washington’s presidency.

Why?  Because Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had imposed a tax on a certain product to help pay off the new nation’s war debt.

Does anyone know what that product was?

You guessed it: Whiskey.

And we’ve had to struggle constantly over the question:  “Who do these principles apply to?”

The United States, of course, despite having thrown off the yoke of Royal tyranny, entrenched its own form.

We had slavery:  An officially—and legally—sanctioned system of repression, suppression and oppression.

A brutal and violent tyranny over millions.

And a legacy that lives with us to this day—note recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.

We Americans, of course, adore the tales and legends associated with the revolution, such as Paul Revere’s ride and the Boston Tea Party.

But just as the War of Independence was not a rebuke of British principles …

…so the years since revolution have been part of the struggle to make them more universal.

Consider, for example, the first three words to the Preamble to the Constitution:  “We the People.”

When Franklin, Jefferson and the rest wrote that who really were “The People” at that time?

It was effectively “we the white, male, landowning people.”

Just as the references to “free man” or “free men” throughout Magna Carta left disenfranchised over half of England’s male population in the early 13th century.

Magna Carta, let’s not forget, was about powerful and rich guys cutting a deal with a guy who was even more powerful and wanted to be even more rich.

And in America it has been a slow, bitter and often bloody battle to embrace more and more Americans in an ever-expanding circle of inclusion under the heading, “The People”.

It wasn’t until the 1850s—70 or so years after the Constitutional Convention–that the last state in the union gave up the property requirement to vote  — “we the white, male people”.

We fought our civil war and slavery was abolished – then we had:  “We the male people”.

It took another 50 years after that war before we changed the law so women could vote – “we the people” at last.

Or was it?

For most of the 20th century, we had to fight a new battle for civil rights because slavery had been replaced by a virtual apartheid in much of America.

The legal right to vote had been made practically impossible across large swathes of the South.

And it wasn’t until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65 that African-Americans could in any way be regarded as having secured the rights of “The People.”

And when we consider more deeply the wider notions of equality and opportunity under the law, it’s much later still—in the ‘80s and ‘90s– that “The People” truly included the disabled…

…and only in the last decade that it’s begun to fully include LGBT communities.

So our maturation process has taken more than 200 years to get this far and, we’re still far from finished.

Which is why the phrase that immediately follows “We the People” in our constitution bears repeating.

It’s:  “In order to form a more perfect union.”

The founding fathers were wise enough to know the union they were creating was not perfect and never would be.

President Obama has made this point many times, sometimes channeling the words of William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

But we still endeavor to make good on the vision of a more perfect union every day…

Knowing that our experiment in self-government means that we must be humble enough to be self-critical and confident enough to self-correct.

For Magna Carta’s enduring influence comes from its combination of immovable principles and adaptable structure.

We see this influence in our two countries — how about those other places beyond our shores?

Consider the conflicts and disputes in today’s hotspots around the world that make the front pages of our papers.

Too readily we see only the factions & frictions; the fermenting of years of hostility and hurt and hatred.

As such, we can, let’s be honest — myself very much included — get a bit high and mighty and talk only in abstract terms, in capital letters from our safe perches in capital cities.

Just as we’d rather talk about the settling stories of Boston than the very unsettling scenes of Baltimore; it can be too tempting to preach about comforting concepts like liberty than to engage in the uncomfortable complexities of Libya.

It is easy to get too dejected when democratic rumblings happen in frustrating fits and starts.

That is not to say that what we see isn’t sometimes appalling.

But we should probably be quicker to regard these situations with a little more recognition and understanding.

It may look like a toxic brew.

But shouldn’t we consider the possibility that it is instead the beginning of a distillation process?

Without such recognition, it is all too easy to throw up our hands and give up our hopes when the heady ideals don’t match the earthy realities.

The enduring truth is that as the revolutions or crises fade from the headlines what is required is often simply getting down to it:  Doing the hard work of cutting deals, correcting them, keeping to them.

There are nations right now at the beginning of that process.

And with them in mind, we can look around ourselves at this moment, in this room, and be grateful to be farther along – mindful, as we are, that our own maturation goes on.

That’s why this year’s celebrations are so important.

The endurance of Magna Carta’s principles and the process that has refined and spread them are our nations’ greatest inheritances.

Our job is to uphold those values in our own nations and on the world stage.

So as we leave here tonight and talk enthusiastically about Magna Carta and its commemoration, we are right to hold up its essence—this distillate we have developed.

We are right to preach and practice these values.

We are right to be heady and not just earthy.

As one of my favorite British authors C.S. Lewis put it: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither.”

And so—as we mark 800 years of Magna Carta and its enduring influence—we toast the barons of 1215: the accidental, dysfunctional, yet wonderful parents of Magna Carta…

…the generations after—who distilled their ideas into the cultures, customs, and constitutions we have so fortunately inherited…

…and we acknowledge too all those engaged today in the hard, daily grind of making good on that inheritance wherever they are, in whatever way they can.

And the spirit I toast them with is, of course, a glass of whiskey.

Thank you.