President, Mr. Marshal, Mr. Chancellor, Magna Charta Dames and Barons, it is a
pleasure for Leslie and me to join you here tonight.
I am honored to represent the U. S. Capitol Historical Society and tell
you about our connection with the Magna Carta, both as a physical presence in
the United States Capitol and as the inspiration for our own Constitution upheld
by the more than 12,000 Members of Congress who have served since 1789.
you know, a replica of the Magna Carta is prominently displayed in the U.S.
Capitol building. It has been on
exhibit in the Capitol Rotunda for 27 years, following the display of an
original 1215 Magna Carta loaned by the British government in honor of our
Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.
How did this all come about? In
1974, while taking the oath of office as
He was not all that sure he would succeed in this task, because ten years
earlier, in 1965, Warner had attempted to obtain the loan of a copy of the Magna
Carta for a symposium of international jurists and lawyers under the auspices of
the World Peace Through Law Conference. Warner
was a member of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s executive committee for this event
and had been asked to create an exhibit of copies, preferably originals, of
important legal documents throughout the world.
Bearing letters from the Chief Justice, Warner visited the hierarchy at
Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral seeking to borrow a copy of the 1215
Magna Carta – but to no avail. The
British Government also declined an original, but did provide a copy of a later
issuance of the Magna Carta, dated 1225, which was placed on exhibit at the
National Archives alongside the Declaration of Independence.
Senator Warner broached the idea again in January 1975, when he was guest
of honor at a luncheon hosted by Lord Lothian, chairman of the British
Bicentennial Liaison Committee. He
suggested that consideration be given of a loan of one of the four remaining
originals of the 1215 Magna Carta. The
idea was enthusiastically endorsed by the Committee and ultimately it produced a
special motion from the British Parliament which was passed on
The logistical arrangements of the loan and exhibit of this rare document
were left to the respective leaderships of Parliament and the Congress.
Assisting in the arrangements were the combined efforts of the American
Revolution Bicentennial Administration, the U. S. Capitol Historical Society and
the Supreme Court Historical Society. The
result was that in June 1976, an original of the 1215 Magna Carta rested in the
Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
The copy of the Magna Carta exhibited in the Rotunda in 1976 was one of
the two copies from the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, long
preserved in the
As part of the loan arrangements, an ornate display case was presented to
The display case was made in
display pedestal that held the original document, and which remains in the
Rotunda today, consists of
this rests a presentation case made of stainless steel in the form of a hinged,
flat box clad in gold and white enamel. The
gold panel inside the lower section of the case holds raised gold text
duplicating that of the Magna Carta; gold replicas of King John’s seal are at
the left of the document. On the
glass center divider are gold incised letters forming the English translation of
The other half of the case holds a gold plate engraved with symbolic
designs depicting the sun and the moon, Adam and Eve, a crab with eyes of black
pearls, a dragon with emerald eyes, and a dove of peace with sapphire eyes.
The small diamonds in the hair of Eve are stars; the pearls are
raindrops. Above the dove and
between her wings are fifty diamonds, representing the fifty states.
The three-dimensional figures assembled over the engraved plate are
intended to suggest a 20th century variation of a 13th
century illuminated manuscript. At
the base are the four rivers of paradise, from which springs the tree of life.
The snake represents evil; the ivy, protection.
The apples are the forbidden fruit, and the mistletoe represents family
affection and loyalty.
The blossoms on the tree branches are the Tudor Rose of
For a year, the original Wyems copy of Magna Carta was displayed in the
case on top of the gold replica. Before
it was returned to
Its presence is a continual reminder of the impact Magna Carta had on the
constitutional liberties we in the
That this document had a profound influence upon the draftsmen as they
devised our system of government between the years 1776 and 1789 is an accepted
fact. In one of history’s greatest
ironies, the document that established the basis for the rights and liberties of
Englishmen helped form the basis for
Sir Edward Coke's
reinterpretation of Magna Carta in the early 17th century provided an argument
for universal liberty in
Coke, Attorney General for Elizabeth,
Chief Justice during the reign of James, and a leader in Parliament in
opposition to Charles I, used Magna Carta as a weapon against the oppressive
tactics of the Stuart kings. Coke argued that even kings must comply with common
law. As he proclaimed to Parliament in 1628, "Magna Carta . . . will have
no sovereign." Lord Coke's view of the law was particularly relevant to the
American experience for it was during this period that the charters for the
colonies were written.
The Magna Carta inspired William Penn, for example, in his shaping of
During one parliamentary debate in the late 18th century, Edmund Burke
observed, "In no country, perhaps in the world, is law so general a
study." Through Coke, whose
four-volume Institutes of the Laws of England was widely read by
American law students, young colonists such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and
James Madison learned of the spirit of the charter and the common law--or at
least Coke's interpretation of them. Later,
It is no wonder then that as the colonists prepared for war they would
look to Coke and Magna Carta for justification.
By the 1760s the colonists had come to believe that in
But these beliefs were soon tested. Following
the costly Seven Years'
colonists rebelled against such control over their daily affairs.
Their own elected legislative bodies had not been asked to consent to the
Stamp Act. The colonists argued that
without either this local consent or direct representation in Parliament, the
act was "taxation without representation."
They also objected to the law's provision that those who disobeyed could
be tried in admiralty courts without a jury of their peers.
influence on Americans showed clearly when the Massachusetts Assembly reacted by
declaring the Stamp Act "against the Magna Carta and the natural rights of
Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord Coke, null and void."
While Magna Carta did include some provisions reaffirming the principles
of trial by jury and taxation by consent for the baronage, these
"privileges" were never intended to apply to all levels of society.
English historian Goldwyn Smith wrote that these two ideas, considered
fundamental to liberty, were actually "misrepresentation" of Magna
Carta by 17th-century lawyers like Coke. Smith
continued, however, that such "interpretations were not wholly absurd, for
they accurately reflected the spirit, if not the purpose, of the thirteenth
Regardless of whether the charter forbade taxation without representation
or if this was merely implied by the "spirit," the colonists used this
"misinterpretation" to condemn the Stamp Act.
To defend their objections, they turned to a 1609 or 1610 defense
argument used by Coke: superiority of the common law over acts of Parliament.
Coke claimed "When an act of parliament is against common right or
reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control
it and adjudge such an act void. Because the Stamp Act seemed to tread on the
concept of consensual taxation, the colonists believed it, "according to
Lord Coke," invalid.
Franklin and others in
Thus, the Magna Carta set in motion a chain of events that led inexorably
to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
In 1215, when King John confirmed Magna Carta with his seal, he was
acknowledging the now firmly embedded concept that no man--not even the king--is
above the law. That was a milestone
in constitutional thought for the 13th century and for centuries to come.
In 1779 John Adams expressed it this way: "A government of laws, and
not of men." Further, the
charter established important individual rights that have a direct legacy in the
American Bill of Rights. And during
Just as Magna Carta stood as a bulwark against tyranny in
How does this all fit into what we do at the U. S. Capitol Historical
Society? First, our mission is to
preserve the history of the Capitol and Congress.
The Magna Carta is a precursor of that history.
But in addition, we are in the business of educating youngsters so that
they know their history, so that they appreciate the importance of civic
involvement and so that they deepen their love for our country.
As our future leaders, an understanding of the roots of their government
will arm them with the knowledge to make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, several recent surveys have pointed up the woeful lack of
knowledge of history and civics among youngsters today.
- In May 2002, a
nationwide survey commissioned by
Columbia Law School
- A recent survey of
teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center observed that more
students were able to name the Three Stooges (59%) than could name the three
branches of the U.S. government (41%); and while less than 2% recognized
James Madison as the “father of the Constitution,” 58% knew Bill Gates
as the founder of Microsoft.
- According to the 1998
National Assessment of Educational Progress, three-quarters of the
nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders lack proficiency
in civics. That testing also
concluded that nearly a third of these students did not have a basic
knowledge of the subject.
- A study by the
American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that college seniors could not
Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution. Given high-school level questions, 81% of the college seniors would have received a D or F.
- ACTA found students
could graduate from 100% of the top colleges without taking a single course
in American history. At 78% of
the institutions, students were not required to take any history at all.
- A third of the
students at 55 elite universities were unable to identify the Constitution
as establishing the division of powers in our government.
- Only 29% could
identify the term “Reconstruction”.
- At least 40% could not
place the civil war in the correct half-century.
- More than one-third of
seniors could not correctly name the major Axis nations of World War II.
- Only 23% of students
answered correctly when asked who the “Father of the Constitution” was,
while a majority (54%) identified Thomas Jefferson rather than James
one-third (34%) correctly identified George Washington as the American
Yorktown; 37 percent thought Ulysses S. Grant was the general at that battle.
- In other studies:
Almost two-thirds of Americans think Karl Marx’s maxim, “From
each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”: was or
could have been written by the framers and included in the Constitution.
- More than half of high
school seniors thought that
Italy Germany Japan U.S.
- A 1999 survey
commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State found that
among 15- to 24-year-olds, their lowest-rated priorities in life were
“being a good American” and “participating in democratic government
and voting.” This and other
recent studies report that only one-third of Americans aged 18-24 voted in
the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections; these figures represent more than
a 15% decrease from 1972.
- You will be pleased to
know that 56% of the college seniors surveyed by ACTA knew the Magna Carta
was the foundation of the British parliamentary system.
However, 25% thought it was the charter signed by the Pilgrims on the
Mayflower, 9% thought it was the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and
5% believed it to be the Great Seal of the monarchs of
Thomas Jefferson said: “If
a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects
what never was and never will be”.
Alarmed by these results, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a
concurrent resolution in July 2000, calling on trustees, state administrators
and citizens across the country to address
The U. S. Capitol Historical Society is very much a part of this effort.
Since its founding in 1962, the Society has worked to stem the tide of
historical illiteracy. We do this
through school programs such as our interactive DVD which provides a wealth of
visual and database information on the Capitol and Congress.
The accompanying Teacher Resource Guide enables teachers to develop their
own lessons based on material in the DVD.
For secondary school students, we have created an interdisciplinary
pageant called We, the People which
teaches youngsters about their basic rights as citizens.
We also conduct intensive teacher workshops and interactive forums for
high school students where they can ask questions of Members of Congress and
learn about how these legislators became involved in public service.
For scholars and history buffs, we present scholarly seminars on the
history of Congress and Art and Architecture of the Capitol; and our program of
research fellowships contributes fresh information on the Capitol, providing a
permanent record for future scholars. We, the People, our acclaimed publication guidebook to the Capitol
has been placed in the hands of over five million people.
of our most popular items is the pocket Constitution that each of you found at
your seat tonight.
have distributed this guide to schools nationwide as a handy reference to the
document that guides our government.
hope you will find it just as useful.
I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask each of you to become a member of
the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and help support our educational mission.
Society is creating a new Capitol Alumni group that will recognize family
members and descendants of individuals who have served in the Continental
Congress through the 108th Congress.
are such a distinguished group, with extensive knowledge of your ancestry; I
don’t doubt that (if you are willing to admit it) many of you have a Member of
Congress in your family tree. I
would love to hear your stories
Please visit our original site: www.magnacharta.org