To help while away the time while whittling away the calories, I generally listen to something while wheeling along the treadmill. One current favorite is the long-running English discussion program “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg. Yesterday, I happened to puff away to a discussion of Magna Carta, the great foundational document of democracy that the barons imposed upon the evil King John (remember the Sheriff of Nottingham? Sir Guy of Gisbourne?) at Runnymede in 1215. (The operative bits date mostly from the charter of 1225, but 1215 is the date impressed upon our school memories.)
Bragg began his show by quoting one of the most famous sections of the Great Charter, clause 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
Here for once the “emanations and penumbras” that William O. Douglas discerned some centuries later really do cast their reverberations. For what these few lines limn is what we now call the right of due process, with hints about a presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, and a good deal more of the machinery of modern civil rights.
Above all, however, Magna Carta revolves around two checks on tyranny, outlining the protections individuals enjoy against the arbitrary coercive power of the state and, just as important, declaring the subjection of the sovereign to the law of the land.