America's Magna Carta Moment

We are approaching the 800th anniversary of one of the “grandparents” of our Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, Magna Carta. The provisions in that document and its subsequent iterations set England upon the course of democratic rule and curbing the power of government. While the first attempt at this failed shortly after it was agreed to, subsequent versions saw eventual, real change upon who really controls the government of a nation.

And yet, history is repeating itself as we here in the United States see a nearly unlimited expansion of the federal government’s taxing powers just as it was in King John’s England 797 years ago. Obviously, the reasons for the taxes are markedly different; but the effect on the people is the same as more of their own money is flushed down the abyss of the federal government’s toilet.

In April, 1199, John came to the throne not only as King of the English, but also as Lord of Ireland. In addition, he had control of the western half of what is now France as Duke of the Normans (Normandy), Duke of the Aquitainians (Aquitaine), and Count of the Angevins (Anjou and Maine). He was also the feudal overlord of the Count of Toulouse in southern France. A year after becoming king, John had his first marriage to Isabel of Gloucester annulled and he married Isabella, heir to the county of Angoulême (in west-central France). King John’s feudal overlord was Philip II Augustus, the powerful King of France. For years, Philip had battled John’s brother and predecessor, King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), over possession of Richard’s French territories; Richard was successful in maintaining his French holdings but left John a huge problem when the latter inherited all of Richard’s titles and lands.

From the get go, Philip continued to press the English monarch. John’s marriage to Isabella of Angoulême didn’t help things out as she had been betrothed to one of the English king’s vassals, Hugh of Lusignan. Hugh complained to Philip, John’s overlord, and the King of France demanded John pay some sort of restitution. John refused, and a war between England and France ensued, a war that would last 17 years, ending a year after John’s death in 1216 and costing England all of its French territories save Aquitaine. John’s loss of Normandy was especially bad since it was the base for all of England’s kings since the days of John’s great-great-grandfather, King William I, the Conqueror.

John also created another problem for himself and his English subjects. In 1205, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in England, died. Troubles between the Church and the Kings of the English were nothing new; John’s father King Henry II had a major run in with his own Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, which led to Becket’s murder in 1170 (Becket was quickly canonized after that). The leading religious leaders wanted to choose the next Archbishop, while John pushed for his own candidate. Both sides sent their case to Rome to have the matter decided by the most powerful pope of all time, Pope Innocent III. Innocent ordered a compromise candidate, Stephen Langton, to be named, but John refused. As a result, Innocent first put England under an interdict (all religious functions in England were stopped, except for baptisms and deathbed confessionals), followed by John’s excommunication; England was no longer under the protection of the Church. After a few years, John relented and in 1214, Innocent withdrew the excommunication and interdiction. By then, John’s situation in France had gotten much worse as he was under pressure from Philip.

As absolute ruler, just as all English kings had been, John had expected his noble vassals to assist in fighting John’s wars or provide tax money to pay for them. But by 1215, the nobles had had enough. They had threatened revolt, which included overthrowing John and getting behind an alternative monarch, in this case Louis, the eldest son and heir of King Philip of France. The nobles drew up a charter that not only curbed John’s ability to raise taxes, but also imposed a council to establish oversight of the monarchy. Between a rock and a hard place, John put his seal on the document, which eventually became known as Magna Carta (Great Charter), in June, 1215. Peace between the King and the nobles was restored, and John would now be free to continue his war against Philip to reclaim John’s lost French territories.

At least that was what was supposed to happen. Within weeks, John had sent Magna Carta to Pope Innocent, claiming his rights as king were being restricted, along with Innocent’s rights in England as Pope; Innocent agreed and, in his capacity as a spiritual judge, threw out Magna Carta. The nobles rebelled, inviting France’s Prince Louis to take the English throne. Not only did John have a continuation of the war with France on his hands, he had to deal with a revolt of most of his own barons (the First Barons War).

Returning to the present, we have a similar situation where President Barack Obama and the Democrats have, in my opinion, imposed unconstitutional taxes upon all of the people in America, all sanctioned by our own version of Pope Innocent, Chief Justice John Roberts. Fortunately, we still have a peaceful way out of all of this with the election coming up this November, by electing Republican Mitt Romney as President and electing more Republicans to the U.S. Senate to repeal the Obamacare travesty. Considering Obama exhibits many of the same tyrannical qualities as King John, and are backed by Democrat miscreants in Congress, it remains to be seen what will happen if Obama is re-elected to another four-year term.

Post-script: In early 1216, Prince Louis brought a French army to England after having been invited by the rebellious English barons. Although John had regained some of the initiative, he died of dysentery in October, 1216, and his son and heir was crowned King Henry III. Being a 10-year old child, John’s most loyal ally, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was named regent for Henry. Pembroke reissued a new version of Magna Carta; this was rejected by the rebellious barons who were still winning the war. But due to a change in military fortunes, Prince Louis abandoned his attempt to gain the English throne and returned to France; the nobles who had revolted were allowed to return to the good graces of King Henry, and the war was over. Pembroke died in 1219. Six years later, another iteration of Magna Carta was issued, and this one held; the rule of law regarding taxation would apply to the king as well as all of his subjects, and although the oversight clause introduced in the 1215 version would no longer be a part of the charter, absolute rule by the monarchy was gone in England for the most part (future English kings and queens would push their legitimate royal and feudal rights to the fullest over the next several centuries). Magna Carta would be reissued a few more times as events warranted.

It was the 1225 version of Magna Carta that is the most direct ancestor of our nation’s founding documents. But that version wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for those who had originally put together the 1215 document, declaring that there needed to be restrictions upon the king’s power. It is good to remember that as we deal with our federal government’s expanding powers.

Cross-posted at Scipio the Metalcon.