On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John of England was forced by forty or so of his barons to sign Magna Carta, the document which today is generally recognized as the cornerstone of English constitutional law and indeed of modern democracy.
What is often overlooked in the story of Magna Carta is that a few months after signing it, King John had the Vatican annul the document and excommunicate the rebellious barons. Ten years later, though, Henry III reissued Magna Carta in a revised form.
The most enduring legacy of Magna Carta is, of course, due process. The document mandated that no man can be imprisoned, stripped of his possessions, or exiled "except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." Magna Carta actually had little to do with democracy. The rich and powerful barons wanted to protect themselves from the arbitrary and capricious wrath of the king. They weren't thinking much about the common man.
There is a 1297 version of Magna Carta at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. This particular document, owned for centuries by an English family, was purchased by Ross Perot in 1984 for $1.5 million. It was on loan to the National Archives, but in 2007, Perot terminated the loan, took back the document, and sold it at auction for $21.3 million. The new owner, David M. Rubenstein, of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, has arranged for the document to be permanently displayed, in a gallery that bears his name, at the National Archives.
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