Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > It's Ok to Celebrate Magna Carta

Jun 16, 2015

It's Ok to Celebrate Magna Carta

tags: Magna Carta,Tom Ginsburg,David Allen Green

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

We historians are a contrary lot—especially about history. If the conventional wisdom seems to be pointing one way, we reflexively point the other. It’s programmed into us in our training, after all: we’re taught to revise the traditional understanding of the past.

So I have no trouble understanding some of what has been published over the last few days about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Writing in the New York Times under the headline “Stop Revering Magna Carta," Tom Ginsburg, professor of international law and political science at the University of Chicago, argues that the fame people are celebrating “rests on several myths.”

In Foreign Policy, David Allen Green denounces “The Destructive Myth of Magna Carta.” It is, he writes, “the sort of document those with power want you to praise, instead of granting you any actual constitutional rights.”

Both Ginsburg and Green make valid historical points. King John  “repudiated the document almost immediately,” as Ginsburg notes. “Few, if any, cases before the courts of England have ever turned on” it, Green tells us. Magna Carta even contains “a number of oddities,” Ginsburg says, including requiring “the removal of fish traps from the Thames.”

I can’t help thinking, however, that this is a case of missing the forest for the trees. Even if Ginsburg and Green are right that for the first 400 of its 800 years, Magna Carta did not loom large at all, that in no way negates its meaning today. Much historical work turns on the ways events gain significance over time, significance not dreamed of when they occurred.

In a couple of weeks, Americans will celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Certainly every historian—really any observer—should remember that the document containing the phrase “All men are created equal” created a nation that countenanced and protected slavery. But that’s insufficient. We also need to recall that it inspired those who fought tenaciously to destroy the evil of slavery.

We could make the Declaration seem petty by focusing on the charge that George III “has erected a multitude of New Offices.” But would that do justice to the document as a whole?

We could note that the assertion that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” was patently false when it was written, with large portions of the United States under British control.

We could say, as Ginsburg does about Magna Carta, that the Declaration “was a result of an intra-elite struggle.” Some historians have done just that, with some justification.

We can admit all of that, and still see much to celebrate in the Declaration. So too with Magna Carta.

Ginsburg and Green make good observations, and have a reasonable point. But it’s still OK to celebrate Magna Carta. After all, we’re talking about a birthday here, and don’t we all wish to have our best selves celebrated on our birthdays?

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