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The Steps In The Growth Of American Liberty


About seven hundred years ago there was organized a movement which
resulted in the great charter of English liberty--a movement which
foreshadowed the battle of our American forefathers for political
independence. On the 25th of August, 1213, the prelates and Barons,
tiring of the tyranny and vacillation of King John, formed a council and
passed measures to secure their rights. After two years of contest, with
many vicissitudes, the Barons entered London and the King fled into
Hampshire. By agreement both parties met at Runnymede on the 9th of
June, 1215, and after several days' debate, on June 15, Magna Charta
(the Great Charter), the glory of England, was signed and sealed by the
sovereign. The Magna Charta is a comprehensive bill of rights, and,
though crude in form, and with many clauses of merely local value, its
spirit still lives and will live. Clear and prominent we find the motto,
No tax without representation. The original document is in Latin and
contains sixty-one articles, of which the 39th and 40th, embodying the
very marrow of our own State constitutions, are here given as translated
in the English statutes:

39. No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or be disseised of his
freehold, or liberties or free customs, or be otherwise destroped
[damaged], nor will be press upon him nor seize upon him [condemn him]
but by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

40. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man,
either right or justice.

The Great Charter recognizes a popular tribunal as a check on the
official judges and may be looked upon as the foundation of the writ of
Habeas Corpus. It provides that no one is to be condemned on rumor or
suspicion, but only on the evidence of witnesses. It affords protection
against excessive emercements, illegal distresses and various processes
for debts and service due to the crown. Fines are in all cases to be
proportionate to the magnitude of the offense, and even the villein or
rustic is not to be deprived of his necessary chattels. There are
provisions regarding the forfeiture of land for felony. The testamentary
power of the subject is recognized over part of his personal estate, and
the rest to be divided between his widow and children. The independence
of the church is also provided for. These are the most important
features of the Great Charter, which, exacted by men with arms in their
hands from a resisting king, occupies so conspicuous a place in history,
which establishes the supremacy of the law of England over the will of
the monarch, and which still forms the basis of English liberties.

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