The attempt to limit government that almost succeeded
King John was in turmoil. England was under interdict from the Pope, and he himself had been excommunicated. There were threats to the realm from home and abroad. The new century was not particularly working out for him. By 1213, however, he had been absolved from excommunication, the clergy reinstated to their churches. But now a group of barons was breathing down his neck. They demanded his affirmation that he would continue “to maintain the ancient laws of the realm.” His track record on that score was not encouraging.
It is every Englishman’s heritage that Magna Carta established the rights and freedoms of Englishmen. But Magna Carta became the document that kings would use to destroy its very principles. Three months after the signing of the Great Charter civil war was still evident, over the principles in the Charter. In other words, the Magna Carta was never really implemented in its original form.
The years prior to 1215 were of great disturbance in England. The disturbance was over the extent of the power of the king. And there were nobles to the north of London who favored no increase in the monarch’s powers. Naturally, the king disagreed with this, and was willing to use whatever force was necessary to have his way. The issue was money—taxation.
The barons, however, were united in their views and willingness to do whatever was necessary to limit the king’s powers. They saw any increase as a denial of their freedom.
To understand this background, step back to Alfred the Great and his willingness to apply Old Testament legal requirements as the laws of England. Among these were a strong sense of property ownership, found in Exodus chapters 21-23.
Alfred appears to have few of the powers of later kings or modern houses of parliament (or Congress). Yes, he could wage war against enemies who attacked ‘his’ people. Apart from that, his key power seems to be an ability to act as a court of appeal. When a serf could not obtain a fair hearing from his baron, he could appeal to Alfred, who would step in and, if necessary, reprimand the baron for his lack of justice.
Being a king at that time had severe limitations. The limitations were primarily financial, for without money no one, not even a king, can exercise much power at all.
The limiting factor to kingship was property rights. What is property? Physical assets. (I’m ignoring intellectual property issues in this article.) The key issue then, as it is today, is property rights in money. And at that time, money was held to be property. The Biblical view of money as money of weight of silver—a shekel—also requires money to be considered as property which someone owns. Not surprisingly, Magna Carta requires the establishment of uniform weights and measures throughout the realm.
Now King John had inherited a rather touchy problem, money. Henry I before him had initiated reforms to get his hands on money, without too much success. After he died, England entered a period known as the Anarchy, and the new King John needed money.
The barons objected and refused to pay. The king confiscated physical assets without due process, and without any compensation. Why would he pay compensation? No net gain for him to do that. Thus the origin of the two most famous clauses of Magna Carta:
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 judgement of his equals, or by the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
“Stripped of possessions” is a description of taxation. It is a confiscation of property that, unless ordained by God, becomes an act of theft.
A charter of liberties was proposed in the late summer of 1213. When initially presented with the demands, King John did what all good politicians do: he ignored and avoided the demands and delayed his response.
The barons became impatient. They marched toward London in 1215, and with each delaying tactic they added more forceful and specific terms to the demands made earlier. At Runnymede, on June 15, the barons were successful in pressuring the king to sign the Great Charter. The king was not amused.
The ink had hardly dried when John appealed to the Pope. The Pope backed the king on the grounds that Magna Carta was an imposed settlement, not a negotiated one. Magna Carta had achieved very little other than aggravate the king even more. The barons might have a signature, but it takes more than a signature to create a willing implementation with the contents of any agreement or contract.
John did not get what he wanted out of the deal: Money. It’s always about the money.
The early and unexpected death of King John in 1216 at age 49 gave a temporary peace to the situation. John’s son, Henry III, aged nine, became the new king, and his supporters revived Magna Carta. Their revival, however, was not aimed at the suppression of tyranny. They wanted to use it to rally men of moderate cause to the king.
Thus, a revised and re-edited version of Magna Carta appeared November 12, 1216, two weeks after Henry’s coronation. This time it had papal support because the settlement was the result of negotiation. In the following year (1217) a further revision was issued, and finally, eight years later, in the version of 1225, the king got what he always wanted: Money. On this occasion, a special levy of one-fifteenth on moveable goods. To get this levy in place, the Great Charter had to be changed. In its original form it prohibited the confiscation of “corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment …” by any constable or royal official. Money, of course, is the most movable of goods, which is why it attracts so much attention from taxing authorities.
That the original Magna Carta severely restricted the taxing powers of the king is not always recognized. Later versions of Magna Carta did maintain some of its values, but capitulation had taken place on the matter of taxation. Revisions occurred again in 1237, 1253, 1265, and finally in 1297, under Edward I, a copy was placed on the Statute Roll. And Edward got the taxes he wanted. It’s always about the money.
While the 1297 version reinforced the idea of no taxation without consent of the taxed, it omitted to make clear how that consent was to be given. This left the door open for later imposition of taxes and levies.
The 1225/1297 version contained the provision that a free man should not give away or sell so much of his land that he would not be able to meet his feudal obligations to his lord. This was not in the original 1215 version, and indicates a return to Roman law. The Empire had effectively made taxation compulsory, and citizens could not sell or dispossess themselves of property as a means of avoiding the taxes.
The short-lived victory of the barons was at an end. It took 600 years to drag the life out of Magna Carta. It was clear that no king—or parliament—of England would voluntarily have his (its) hands tied by any Great Charter. Thus it required constant petitions to the the king to affirm his commitment to Magna Carta. At least 32 times this happened during the period of 13th to 15th centuries, its last confirmation by Henry VI in 1423.
Magna Carta, from its noble beginning, suffered a slow and lingering decline, starting in 1225, and it’s principles, while not erased from the memory and hopes of the English people, were eventually repealed. Beginning in 1829 most of its clauses were repealed over the ensuing 140 years. The inviolability of Magna Carta had been broken. By 1969, only clauses #1 (freedom of the English Church), #9 (the ‘ancient liberties’ of the City of London), and #29 (the right to due process) were still in force.
The repeal of Magna Carta was thus a repeal of property rights. It took seven centuries for political leaders to become brave enough to levy the income tax, a direct assault on the ownership of money. But ownership of money had already been through the courts with the court rulings always against the individual and his money. By the time the politicians had courage to tax income, they had a string of legal precedents to support the idea.
One jurist in England, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), saw the issue of liberty in Magna Carta and argued for the principles of the 1215 version. He, in return, has been accused of misinterpreting the Great Charter, “misconstruing its clauses anachronistically and uncritically.” When James asserted the absolute power of the monarchy, Coke responded, “Magna Carta is called the Charter of Liberty because it maketh men free.” In his view, any act of the king or parliament against Magna Carta was void.
The evidence is there. The 1215 Magna Carta contained a provision that allowed the barons to elect their own group of 25 barons, who were empowered to seize “castles, lands and possessions … until, in their judgement, amends have been made”, should the king get out of hand. This was based on an earlier medieval concept, its intention to prevent seizure or distraint without a court order. Today, taxing authorities such as the United States IRS are exempt from this kind of law. Had Magna Carta remained intact, the modern nation-state would have great trouble collecting its taxes, especially the income tax.
This is how Magna Carta contributed to property rights theory and practice. Once the power to confiscate property without just payment came into effect for money, the floodgate had been opened for the present disaster in the modern world, where monarchs, quasi-dictators, and inept politicians have upped the ante from one-fifteenth of moveable goods to an excess of over 55% of all wealth created.
There will be no turning back the clock unless there is a turning back to property rights in money. John’s dislike of Magna Carta was understandable. If he had to pay fair compensation for property that he confiscated, then taxation would be a zero-sum game for him. Only a radical change to Magna Carta could allow the king—any king—to tax and keep the taxed money without any form of compensation.
There is not a political party in the West today, nor a political leader of any persuasion, that is willing to tackle the subject of money as property, and return real ownership of money to the people.
And yet it is obvious that ownership of money—property rights in money—is the real key to freedom. Not democracy; not the right to vote, nor the freedom to select who should run for office.
Like John, no political leader or aspiring political leader wants to lead without money. And no amount of biblical teaching, apparently, is going to change their mind.
Taxation—property theft when it goes beyond its God-ordained limits—is here to stay, until the principles of the original Magna Carta are restored. And that will take a Christian revolution.
See also The Immoral Majority.
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