Ronald A. Sarasin: Remarks on the Magna Carta

Former President, U.S. Capitol Historical Society

April 12, 2003

Madam President, Mr. Marshal, Mr. Chancellor, Magna Charta Dames and Barons, it is a pleasure for Leslie and me to join you here tonight. I am honored to represent the U. S. Capitol Historical Society and tell you about our connection with the Magna Carta, both as a physical presence in the United States Capitol and as the inspiration for our own Constitution upheld by the more than 12,000 Members of Congress who have served since 1789.

As you know, a replica of the Magna Carta is prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol building. It has been on exhibit in the Capitol Rotunda for 27 years, following the display of an original 1215 Magna Carta loaned by the British government in honor of our Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.

How did this all come about? In 1974, while taking the oath of office as Administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, John Warner (now the senior Senator from Virginia) swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Warner’s task in this new position was to encourage citizens to reaffirm the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as the main themes of their community bicentennial planning during 1976. These three documents form the core of America’s system of government, which remains the oldest continuous form of a democratic republic today. In reflecting on his mission, the Senator thought it could best be expressed by bringing to the U.S. Capitol the document which originally inspired many of the basic guarantees found in our government – the Magna Carta.

He was not all that sure he would succeed in this task, because ten years earlier, in 1965, Warner had attempted to obtain the loan of a copy of the Magna Carta for a symposium of international jurists and lawyers under the auspices of the World Peace Through Law Conference. Warner was a member of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s executive committee for this event and had been asked to create an exhibit of copies, preferably originals, of important legal documents throughout the world.

Bearing letters from the Chief Justice, Warner visited the hierarchy at Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral seeking to borrow a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta – but to no avail. The British Government also declined an original, but did provide a copy of a later issuance of the Magna Carta, dated 1225, which was placed on exhibit at the National Archives alongside the Declaration of Independence.

Senator Warner broached the idea again in January 1975, when he was guest of honor at a luncheon hosted by Lord Lothian, chairman of the British Bicentennial Liaison Committee. He suggested that consideration be given of a loan of one of the four remaining originals of the 1215 Magna Carta. The idea was enthusiastically endorsed by the Committee and ultimately it produced a special motion from the British Parliament which was passed on July 2, 1975.

Subsequently the loan was authorized by Queen Elizabeth. The logistical arrangements of the loan and exhibit of this rare document were left to the respective leaderships of Parliament and the Congress. Assisting in the arrangements were the combined efforts of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, the U. S. Capitol Historical Society and the Supreme Court Historical Society. The result was that in June 1976, an original of the 1215 Magna Carta rested in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

The copy of the Magna Carta exhibited in the Rotunda in 1976 was one of the two copies from the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, long preserved in the British Museum and classified as “Cotton Manuscript Augustus II, 106.” Who first owned it is unknown. Sir Robert Cotton acquired it in 1629, the gift of a friend, Humphrey Wyems. It is a handsome copy and contains additions and corrections incorporated into the text of the other known copies. The document loaned to the United States is regarded by scholars as the most authoritative copy extant. It was a gesture of extraordinary generosity that Britain loaned a manuscript of such incalculable value so that visitors during the Bicentennial year could see the most enduring symbol of our inherited liberties – liberties common to the free and independent people of both Great Britain and the United States.

As part of the loan arrangements, an ornate display case was presented to the United States as a gift of the British government. The gift was formalized at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on June 3, 1976 by representatives of the British Parliament and the United States Congress. Occupying the center of the Capitol Building, the Rotunda is one of the rare spaces that is jointly under the jurisdiction of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It required a concurrent resolution of Congress to authorize its place there.

The display case was made in England by the artist Louis Osman, who had also created the crown for the investiture of Prince Charles. And it is just as ornate, symbolic and exquisitely crafted as the royal crown. The display pedestal that held the original document, and which remains in the Rotunda today, consists of Yorkshire sandstone surmounted by a block of pegmatite, a rare three-billion-year-old volcanic stone from the Outer Hebrides.

On this rests a presentation case made of stainless steel in the form of a hinged, flat box clad in gold and white enamel. The gold panel inside the lower section of the case holds raised gold text duplicating that of the Magna Carta; gold replicas of King John’s seal are at the left of the document. On the glass center divider are gold incised letters forming the English translation of Magna Carta.

The other half of the case holds a gold plate engraved with symbolic designs depicting the sun and the moon, Adam and Eve, a crab with eyes of black pearls, a dragon with emerald eyes, and a dove of peace with sapphire eyes. The small diamonds in the hair of Eve are stars; the pearls are raindrops. Above the dove and between her wings are fifty diamonds, representing the fifty states. The three-dimensional figures assembled over the engraved plate are intended to suggest a 20th century variation of a 13th century illuminated manuscript. At the base are the four rivers of paradise, from which springs the tree of life. The snake represents evil; the ivy, protection. The apples are the forbidden fruit, and the mistletoe represents family affection and loyalty.

The blossoms on the tree branches are the Tudor Rose of England – white flowers for the house of York and red for the house of Lancaster. The combined red and white flowers signify the resolution of conflict. Other symbolic plants include the shamrock for Ireland, thistles for Scotland, and daffodils for Wales. The oak, for Britain, grows into the Royal Coat of Arms, with the lion and the unicorn composed of gold and silver and set with precious gems.

For a year, the original Wyems copy of Magna Carta was displayed in the case on top of the gold replica. Before it was returned to England on June 13, 1977, more than five million visitors had the opportunity to view this rare document at close range. The display case with the gold text of the Magna Carta remains in the Rotunda today where millions of people continue to see it each year.

Its presence is a continual reminder of the impact Magna Carta had on the constitutional liberties we in the United States enjoy today.

That this document had a profound influence upon the draftsmen as they devised our system of government between the years 1776 and 1789 is an accepted fact. In one of history’s greatest ironies, the document that established the basis for the rights and liberties of Englishmen helped form the basis for England’s American colonies to assert their independence from the mother country.

Sir Edward Coke’s reinterpretation of Magna Carta in the early 17th century provided an argument for universal liberty in England and gave American colonists a basis for their condemnation of British colonial policies.

Coke, Attorney General for Elizabeth, Chief Justice during the reign of James, and a leader in Parliament in opposition to Charles I, used Magna Carta as a weapon against the oppressive tactics of the Stuart kings. Coke argued that even kings must comply with common law. As he proclaimed to Parliament in 1628, "Magna Carta . . . will have no sovereign." Lord Coke’s view of the law was particularly relevant to the American experience for it was during this period that the charters for the colonies were written.

The Magna Carta inspired William Penn, for example, in his shaping of Pennsylvania’s charter of government. Each charter included the guarantee that those sailing for the New World and their heirs would have "all the rights and immunities of free and natural subjects." As our forefathers developed legal codes for the colonies, many incorporated liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights directly into their own statutes. Although few colonists could afford legal training in England, they remained remarkably familiar with English common law.

During one parliamentary debate in the late 18th century, Edmund Burke observed, "In no country, perhaps in the world, is law so general a study." Through Coke, whose four-volume Institutes of the Laws of England was widely read by American law students, young colonists such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison learned of the spirit of the charter and the common law–or at least Coke’s interpretation of them. Later, Jefferson would write to Madison of Coke: "a sounder Whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called English liberties."

It is no wonder then that as the colonists prepared for war they would look to Coke and Magna Carta for justification. By the 1760s the colonists had come to believe that in America they were creating a place that adopted the best of the English system but adapted it to new circumstances; a place where a person could rise by merit, not birth; a place where men could voice their opinions and actively share in self-government.

But these beliefs were soon tested. Following the costly Seven Years’ War, Great Britain was burdened with substantial debts and the continuing expense of keeping troops on American soil. Parliament thought the colonies should finance much of their own defense and levied the first direct tax, the Stamp Act, in 1765. As a result, virtually every document–newspapers, licenses, insurance policies, legal writs, even playing cards–would have to carry a stamp showing that required taxes had been paid.

The colonists rebelled against such control over their daily affairs. Their own elected legislative bodies had not been asked to consent to the Stamp Act. The colonists argued that without either this local consent or direct representation in Parliament, the act was "taxation without representation." They also objected to the law’s provision that those who disobeyed could be tried in admiralty courts without a jury of their peers.

Coke’s influence on Americans showed clearly when the Massachusetts Assembly reacted by declaring the Stamp Act "against the Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord Coke, null and void."

While Magna Carta did include some provisions reaffirming the principles of trial by jury and taxation by consent for the baronage, these "privileges" were never intended to apply to all levels of society. English historian Goldwyn Smith wrote that these two ideas, considered fundamental to liberty, were actually "misrepresentation" of Magna Carta by 17th-century lawyers like Coke. Smith continued, however, that such "interpretations were not wholly absurd, for they accurately reflected the spirit, if not the purpose, of the thirteenth century original."

Regardless of whether the charter forbade taxation without representation or if this was merely implied by the "spirit," the colonists used this "misinterpretation" to condemn the Stamp Act. To defend their objections, they turned to a 1609 or 1610 defense argument used by Coke: superiority of the common law over acts of Parliament. Coke claimed "When an act of parliament is against common right or reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such an act void. Because the Stamp Act seemed to tread on the concept of consensual taxation, the colonists believed it, "according to Lord Coke," invalid.

Benjamin Franklin and others in England eloquently argued the American case, and Parliament quickly rescinded the Stamp Act. But the damage was done; the political climate was changing. As John Adams later wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was affected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."

Thus, the Magna Carta set in motion a chain of events that led inexorably to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

In 1215, when King John confirmed Magna Carta with his seal, he was acknowledging the now firmly embedded concept that no man–not even the king–is above the law. That was a milestone in constitutional thought for the 13th century and for centuries to come. In 1779 John Adams expressed it this way: "A government of laws, and not of men." Further, the charter established important individual rights that have a direct legacy in the American Bill of Rights. And during the United States’ history, these rights have been expanded. The U.S. Constitution is not a static document. Like Magna Carta, it has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the years. This has allowed the Constitution to become the longest-lasting written constitution in the world and a model for those penned by other nations. Through judicial review and amendment, it has evolved so that today Americans–regardless of gender, race, or creed–can enjoy the liberties and protection it guarantees.

Just as Magna Carta stood as a bulwark against tyranny in England, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights today serve similar roles, protecting the individual freedoms of all Americans against arbitrary and capricious rule. One of Magna Carta’s greatest principles, that of “due process," is a fundamental part of our judicial system today. Magna Carta’s guiding values provided the open climate which has made it possible for Members of Congress to vote their consciences and represent their constituency to the fullest extent possible – in times past, and especially now, as we are at war.

How does this all fit into what we do at the U. S. Capitol Historical Society? First, our mission is to preserve the history of the Capitol and Congress. The Magna Carta is a precursor of that history. But in addition, we are in the business of educating youngsters so that they know their history, so that they appreciate the importance of civic involvement and so that they deepen their love for our country. As our future leaders, an understanding of the roots of their government will arm them with the knowledge to make informed decisions.

Unfortunately, several recent surveys have pointed up the woeful lack of knowledge of history and civics among youngsters today.

In May 2002, a nationwide survey commissioned by Columbia Law School revealed “that of alarming number of voting age Americans have serious misconceptions about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”  A recent survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center observed that more students were able to name the Three Stooges (59%) than could name the three branches of the U.S. government (41%); and while less than 2% recognized James Madison as the “father of the Constitution,” 58% knew Bill Gates as the founder of Microsoft. According to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, three-quarters of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders lack proficiency in civics. That testing also concluded that nearly a third of these students did not have a basic knowledge of the subject.

  • A study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that college seniors could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution. Given high-school level questions, 81% of the college seniors would have received a D or F.

  • ACTA found students could graduate from 100% of the top colleges without taking a single course in American history. At 78% of the institutions, students were not required to take any history at all.

  • A third of the students at 55 elite universities were unable to identify the Constitution as establishing the division of powers in our government.

  • Only 29% could identify the term “Reconstruction”.

  • At least 40% could not place the civil war in the correct half-century.

  • More than one-third of seniors could not correctly name the major Axis nations of World War II.

  • Only 23% of students answered correctly when asked who the “Father of the Constitution” was, while a majority (54%) identified Thomas Jefferson rather than James Madison.

  • Approximately one-third (34%) correctly identified George Washington as the American General at Yorktown; 37 percent thought Ulysses S. Grant was the general at that battle.

  • In other studies: Almost two-thirds of Americans think Karl Marx’s maxim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”: was or could have been written by the framers and included in the Constitution.

  • More than half of high school seniors thought that Italy, Germany, or Japan was a U.S. ally in World War II.

  • A 1999 survey commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State found that among 15- to 24-year-olds, their lowest-rated priorities in life were “being a good American” and “participating in democratic government and voting.”  This and other recent studies report that only one-third of Americans aged 18-24 voted in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections; these figures represent more than a 15% decrease from 1972.

  • You will be pleased to know that 56% of the college seniors surveyed by ACTA knew the Magna Carta was the foundation of the British parliamentary system. However, 25% thought it was the charter signed by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, 9% thought it was the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and 5% believed it to be the Great Seal of the monarchs of England. The remaining 5% just did not know or refused to answer.

Thomas Jefferson said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”.

Alarmed by these results, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a concurrent resolution in July 2000, calling on trustees, state administrators and citizens across the country to address America’s historical illiteracy. The bipartisan resolution was introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA). Prominent historians – including David McCullough, Gordon Wood, and Oscar Handlin – endorsed the effort.

The U. S. Capitol Historical Society is very much a part of this effort. Since its founding in 1962, the Society has worked to stem the tide of historical illiteracy. We do this through school programs such as our interactive DVD which provides a wealth of visual and database information on the Capitol and Congress. The accompanying Teacher Resource Guide enables teachers to develop their own lessons based on material in the DVD. For secondary school students, we have created an interdisciplinary pageant called We, the People which teaches youngsters about their basic rights as citizens.

We also conduct intensive teacher workshops and interactive forums for high school students where they can ask questions of Members of Congress and learn about how these legislators became involved in public service. For scholars and history buffs, we present scholarly seminars on the history of Congress and Art and Architecture of the Capitol; and our program of research fellowships contributes fresh information on the Capitol, providing a permanent record for future scholars. We, the People, our acclaimed publication guidebook to the Capitol has been placed in the hands of over five million people.

One of our most popular items is the pocket Constitution that each of you found at your seat tonight.

We have distributed this guide to schools nationwide as a handy reference to the document that guides our government.

I hope you will find it just as useful.

Finally, I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask each of you to become a member of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and help support our educational mission.

The Society is creating a new Capitol Alumni group that will recognize family members and descendants of individuals who have served in the Continental Congress through the 108th Congress.

You are such a distinguished group, with extensive knowledge of your ancestry; I don’t doubt that (if you are willing to admit it) many of you have a Member of Congress in your family tree. I would love to hear your stories.

Thank You.