The 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta
Why Is It Important to Americans?
By Millie Aulbur, director of The Missouri Bar Citizenship Education Program
- To introduce students to the historical context of the Magna Carta.
- To explore to how the principles in the Magna Carta are related to the Rule of Law
- To explore how the principles of the Magna Carta can be found in the Declaration of Independence.
- To explore how the principles of the Magna Carta can be found in the United States Constitution.
- To explore how the principles of the Magna Carta can be found in the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the Constitution.
On June 15, 1215, King John of England placed his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede, which is a field not too far from London. Although this event took place 561 years prior to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, 572 years prior to the creation of the United States Constitution and 574 years prior to the creation of the Bill of Rights, all of these Founding Documents were heavily influenced by the principles found in the Magna Carta. To demonstrate its importance to the philosophical foundations of American government, the American Bar Association erected a monument honoring the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June, 1957. The following lesson plan examines the influence of the principles found in the Magna Carta on America’s Founding Documents.
Historical Background of the Magna Carta
The Constitutional Rights Foundation has three excellent free online resources for leaning about the history and general provisions of the Magna Carta. They be found at:
- As a class or as an individual assignment, have the students list the essential principles found in the Magna Carta:
- Rule of law (must include the idea that no one, not even the king, is above the law). Note: It is important that the students understand what is meant by the rule of law. The Missouri Bar has a lesson plan on the rule of law at https://missourilawyershelp.org/lesson-plans/
- Basic rights such as trial by jury and right to speak out about any harm done by the king without fear of punishment. (Basic due process of law)
- Government by contract or agreement. This was a very revolutionary idea. Up to this point, the king believed he had a divine right from God to rule. The Magna Carta proposed that government was an agreement between those who were ruled and the ruler.
Influence of the Magna Carta on the Writing of the Declaration of Independence
- Review with the students the events leading up to the Continental Congress issuing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
- A copy of the Declaration of Independence should be where all students can see it or students should be provided with copies. Ask the students to whom the Declaration is addressed. How is this similar to the Magna Carta?
- How did the colonists see their relationship with the King of England as a contract? How is this similar to the Magna Carta?
- What basic rights are cited in the Declaration of Independence?
Influence of the Magna Carta on the United States Constitution and Subsequent Amendments
- A copy of the United States Constitution should be where all students see it or students should be provided with copies. How does the preamble to the Constitution reflect the principles found in the Magna Carta? (Especially note the words about who the government is formed by.)
- How do three branches of government and a system of checks and balances reflect the principles found in the Magna Carta?
- Explore with the students why the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Which of the first ten amendments reflect the principles found in the Magna Carta? (Arguably, every one of the them do, including the 9th and 10th)
- How does the 14th Amendment reflect the principles found in the Magna Carta? What about the 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments?
- Have the students research how various presidents have been reminded that they are not above the law. Presidents who have been “checked” by the United States Supreme Court include Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
- How did the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflect the principles found in the Magna Carta?
- Have the students find court cases where the judges or justices have cited the Magna Carta.