The Declaration of Independence was written in the long shadow of Magna Carta, a thirteenth-century document that maintained that even the king was bound by law, not only the law of the commonwealth but God’s law. King John reluctantly bound himself to the charter’s provisions by attaching his seal. To ensure that the king would abide by his word, “the leaders of the nobility held the city of London and the Tower as security until oaths had been administered to ensure that Magna Carta was observed.” The mistrust of the king by the barons was justified. He immediately sought nullification of its restrictions by appealing to Pope Innocent III for relief. On August 24, 1215, the pope issued a bull annulling the Charter and plunged England into a civil war. But a year later, King John died, and it fell to his nine-year-old son Henry III and subsequent kings to feel the full force of Magna Carta.
Why was Magna Carta so revolutionary? “It established for the first time a constitutional principle . . . that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.” But what if the king refused to abide by what he agreed to do in writing? If the king breaks the stipulations of the charter and tramples the rights of his vassals, then lesser rulers and the people with them, may deprive him of his power. This fundamental principle, while not always followed, became an essential part of English Common Law. It was not happenstance, therefore, that the architects of the Declaration of Independence followed a similar principled strategy in outlining their grievances against King George III by using a written document to state their grievances. While certainly not as tyrannical as King John had been, nevertheless, a majority of colonists believed that their rights as Englishmen had been violated, and they wanted relief.
Students of History
The Declaration of Independence was not written in a worldview vacuum. The architects of the Declaration were students of history. They understood that ideas have consequences, especially if an idea becomes a law and is enforced by the sword. While the taxes levied on the colonists were not oppressive, certainly not when compared to modern taxation rates, it was the idea that the king could tax a people without restraint that set the colonials into action. Their rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” was not a denial of the right to taxation but only the claim that a ruler could tax without restraint. Even the final edition of Magna Carta (1225) included the provision that the king could levy a special tax when required. It was the fact that the granted power was in writing and both parties agreed to it that made the document so historic….
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