Winston Churchill stated, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” Therefore, as part of “Foundations” month, I want to review three important documents that played a part in the march of liberty through the years and consequently, had a major impact on the founding of our nation.
I’ll begin with the 1100 Charter of Liberties. It was this charter that laid the basis for English common law. As a result it was the Charter of Liberties that began the march of liberty across England, which later spread to the American colonies. The Charter of Liberties would also become the inspiration for those that wrote the Magna Carta roughly 100 years later. Written by Henry I of England upon his becoming king, the Charter of Liberties represented the first time a king willingly made himself accountable to his people. This was an unusual circumstance indeed! Some of the highlights of this charter were that the church gained more freedom, inheritance laws were changed so that family members no longer had to buy back land after the death of a relative, and unjust taxation, which had been exacted during the reign of William (Henry’s brother), was significantly rectified. Personally, I think this last point was probably an effort on Henry’s part to gain brownie points with the people! As you can see, the Charter of Liberties was significant in laying the foundation for other liberty-promoting documents that would follow.
Next, we come to one of my favorite documents – the Magna Carta. In fact, many hold to the view that without the Magna Carta we wouldn’t have our Declaration of Independence! It was during the reign of King John (think Robin Hood) that the first income tax was instituted. Because of the Charter of Liberties, the people were able to realize this was a problem (although taxation was by no means the only area of governmental overreach taking place!). Thus, in the year 1215, the people got together and compiled a list of their complaints. They decided they needed a body of people, which later became known as parliament, that would oversee the king. While the Charter of Liberties was written by the king, the Magna Carta was written by the people and instituted the first form of representative government in England. Now you can see how the Magna Carta laid the foundation for the form of government we enjoy today. It is interesting to note that the 6th and 8th Amendments to our Constitution (the right to a speedy trial and lawyer and the right to no cruel or unusual punishment) find their roots in several of the provisions of the Magna Carta.
Finally, no discussion of factors that influenced our nation’s founding would be complete without mentioning the impact Scotland has had on our country. Not only have the Scots inspired many through the years with their ardent and self-sacrificing love for freedom, but you may be surprised to find out how many American icons can be traced back to the land of Wallace and Bruce. Of the 43 men who have served as president of the United States, 33 of them have been of either Scottish or Scots-Irish decent. In addition, John Paul Jones (America’s first naval hero in the American War for Independence), nine of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Neil Armstrong, Buick (the oldest American automobile company), and even Micky Mouse, can all be traced to Scotland in one way or another – and this only scratches the surface!
Now with Scotland in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Declaration of Arbroath which was written in 1320. Kevin Swanson discussed in his book, Freedom, how the Declaration of Independence finds its prototype in the Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration of Arbroath was written seven years after the victory of the battle of Bannockburn. This was a momentous achievement for the Scots after years of trying to free themselves from English oppression. John Prebble, a British historian and journalist, wrote, “The Declaration of Arbroath was and has been unequalled in its eloquent plea for the liberty of man.” One of the most stirring sections of the declaration highlights this: “For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” This is the type of passion that would later burn in the hearts of our founders as America became a nation. Furthermore, John Prebble stated that the Declaration of Arbroath is the most important document in Scottish history for two reasons: first, it “set the will and the wishes of the people above the king” and subsequently, “the manifesto affirmed the nation’s independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race.” Additionally, the declaration specifically acknowledges that freedom comes from God and that it was through Him that they had gained the victory over England. It is important to remember the words of Psalm 20:7-8, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the LORD our God. They have bowed down and fallen; but we have risen and stand upright.”
Although this is by no means an exhaustive study, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these documents as much as I have and that it has sparked your interest to study them more. As Americans we have an immensely rich heritage that must not be lost or forgotten!!
You can read the documents we’ve discussed by following the links below:
–Charter of Liberties: http://www.nhinet.org/ccs/docs/char-lib.htm
–Magna Carta: http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation
–Declaration of Arbroath: http://www.nas.gov.uk/downloads/declarationArbroath.pdf
-KrisAnne Hall, Essential Stories For Junior Patriots. Second edition.
-Kevin Swanson, Freedom. 2015.
-Timothy Heald, The Magna Carta Libertatum. intolerableactsdotorg.wordpress.com
-John Prebble, The Declaration of Arbroath 1320. constitution.org/scots/arbroath.pdf
–Scots as Signers of the Declaration of Independence. www.scotlands.com/usa/7.html