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Law has a different history in different cultures. For example, Chinese law is rooted in (a) Confucian philosophy which sought to control human behavior through moral education; and (b) a school of thought called Legalism, which focused more on statecraft, management, and punishment.

In contrast, American law comes from British law, which is based on the Magna Carta of 1215. This “Great Paper”, as the Latin name means, is central in the history of democracy and has to do with freedom and rights. It is actually a series of documents. It was written to resolve disagreements between Britain’s King John, the English barons (noblemen and landowners), and Pope Innocent III. They were arguing about what rights the King should have. King John was thought to be taking too much power for himself.

This was centuries before Protestantism, and the Pope’s representative in England was the Archbishop of Canterbury. One big issue was who should nominate each Archbishop: the King or the Pope? And should the Canterbury monks or England’s bishops have a say?

After several years of wrangling, the barons invaded London (where King John’s palace was, and of course, Buckingham Palace still is) and by way of supporting them, the population opened London’s gates to allow them in. (All cities were walled in those days, the gates locked at night, and sentries posted.) They forced King John to put his seal on their Articles of the Barons, and in return they renewed their loyalty oaths to the King. The formal document which recorded this agreement was the original Magna Carta. But it limited the King’s power too severely for King John, and as soon as the barons left London, he renounced it and began a civil war. Meanwhile, the Pope annulled it as an attempt by the barons to take away his power over the King.

King John died during that war and his 9-year-old son was crowned as Henry III. A child was far less of a threat to anybody, so the war ended and the regents who ruled for the child reissued the Magna Carta. King Henry grew up and ruled for 56 years, and by the time his son became Edward I, the Magna Carta’s regulations and principles had formed solid legal precedents and become part of English society.

What did the Magna Carta contain? What has happened to it since 1215? Watch this space for Law History: Part II, next week.

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