“Let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is King. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”
— THOMAS PAINE
March 2024

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That Pesky Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

After William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he consolidated power and had it pretty good. He could do “whatever the hell he wanted.” Kill a serf? Why not. Plunder a village? Why not. Imprison enemies or those threatening to become enemies? Why not. Everything he did was an official act because he was king. As Mel Brooks’ Louis XIV said in History of the World Part I, “It’s good to be king.”

But William’s paradise did not last. The king needed his people for many things, whether financial, military or spiritual. As the land barons grew stronger they pushed the king more and more in pursuit of their own interests. In exchange for support for his wars, the barons demanded things: rights, for example, and the law of contract. And also justice, including habeas corpus and due process of law including the right to trial by jury. The kings after William did what they could to retain power, but eventually King John gave in and signed Magna Carta Libertatum (aka Magna Carta) at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. It was the first document in western history to write down the principle that the king and his government were subject to the law. Originalists take notice. Anglo-American law started there.

These days one sees this past through a fun house mirror, essentially backward. A prominent contemporary politician has spoken of suspending the Constitution, and warned of a bloodbath if he is not elected. He even predicted there might be no more elections. His lawyers have argued in the Supreme Court that his job requires complete immunity from criminal prosecution for any official acts he or she may have taken, and implicitly that fomenting a riot to prevent the peaceful transfer of power was an official act. In this view the law would protect the president from accountability to the people, the precise opposite of what Magna Carta provided.

At Runnymede the British have given the U.S. one acre of land and a memorial to President John F. Kennedy. It shows gratitude to our country for not regarding the British people who were standing alone against fascism as “losers and suckers,” but instead as fellow travelers in pursuit of freedom. Runnymede lacks a golf course but continues to stand for something. Inscribed on the face of the stone is language from JFK’s Inaugural address:

Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Anything to the contrary is bullshit.

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