Magna Carta, Petition and ‘the ascent to Liberty’

The Magna Carta, Magna Charta, or Great Charter, has had an indelible impact on the development of American constitutional law, serving as the inspiration for many freedoms found in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Scholars have cited its influence on due process, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, trial by jury, and the often forgotten First Amendment freedom of petition.

In the annual State of the First Amendment surveys, conducted by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, responders often identify freedom of speech and religion.  Many identify freedom of the press and to a lesser extent freedom of assembly.

But, year after year less than 5% of the public can identify freedom of petition as a textual-based freedom in the First Amendment.

The lack of knowledge about the freedom of petition is surprising in the extent that it has such deep historic roots.   In a rough sense, the Magna Carta is a pristine early example of freedom of petition.  After all, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence were petitions highlighting grievances against the allegedly arbitrary and unfair actions of English Kings.

The Petition Clause of the First Amendment reads “or petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  Several key words include “petition,” “redress” and “grievances.”   All three of these words are found in Chapter 61 of the Magna Carta, which provides in part:

so that if we, our justiciary, our bailiffs, or any of our officers, shall in any circumstance fail in the performance of them towards any person, or shall break thorough any of these articles of peace and security, and the offence be notified to the four barons chosen out of the five-and-twenty before mentioned, the said four barons shall repair to us, or our justiciary, if we are out of the realm, and laying open the grievance, shall petition to have it redressed without delay;

Many barons in the early thirteenth century England were upset with the actions of King John.  In June 1215, they forced him at Runnymede to recognize their rights as nobility and freemen  of England in a document of sixty-three (63) parts.

The right of petition within the meaning of the Magna Carta was quite limited compared to modern times.  It focused only on the feudal rights of a privileged few.  But, it was a harbinger of more fruitful bounty, including the listing of freedom of petition in the 1689 English Bill of Rights.  The American colonists fervently believed in the right to petition.  Several early state constitutions in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and North Carolina included the freedom of petition in their declaration of rights.

In his magnificent book The Life of the Law, the late Alfred M. Knight explained:

From its inception the fundamental meaning of Magna Charta was that the King is subject to the law – whatever that law might be.  By bowing to the demands of the barons, however unwittingly, John made those words flesh.  From Runnymede on, the people of England knew that the king was under law because they had, in a sense, seen it with their own eyes.  That concrete vision was the source of all the constitutional rights that followed, and in that sense Magna Charta gave birth to them all.

As Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the foreword to the work Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor (Thomson Reuters, 2014), the “Magna Carta laid a foundation for the ascent of liberty and the rule of law.”

It also breathed vigor into the idea of petitioning for a redress of grievances.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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