Magna carta in the age of the american and french revolutions



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While Magna Carta thus played only a relatively minor role in the formal political debate in Britain in the 1790s, its potency as a symbol of British liberties continued to resonate strongly in the popular imagination. Graphic satirists, seeking to sell their products to men of either a reforming or a conservative disposition, were quick to accuse both sides of being a threat to Magna Carta. James Gillray, in his print, Vulture of the Constitution (1789), depicts Prime Minister William Pitt as a vulture tearing up Magna Carta. In his print, The Genius of France Triumphant or Britannia petitioning for Peace (1795), however, he attacks Charles James Fox and Richard Sheridan, leaders of the opposition in parliament, for seeking peace with France and depicts Britannia surrendering Magna Carta to a monstrous French sans-culotte. In Plate 1 of his series of prints on the Consequences of a Successful French Invasion (1798) Gillray depicts French troops violently taking control of the House of Commons, leaving a torn copy of Magna Carta on the floor of the chamber. Thomas Rowlandson’s print, The Contrast (1793), which proved to be one of the most widely distributed visual prints of the 1790s, has Britannia proudly holding a copy of Magna Carta.107 This print proved so popular that it was even re-produced on beer jugs.108 In 1794, Thomas Spence produced a large number of small copper coins or tokens celebrating the release of all the radicals accused of high treason that year. One side of these coins listed the names of all those accused, while the other side showed the defence lawyers, Thomas Erskine and Vicary Gibbs, holding a scroll with the words ‘Bill of Rights’ on it and with another scroll above their heads labelled ‘Magna Charta’.109



In the 1790s, therefore, the ideological content of the profound and protracted debate on the civil liberties and political rights of Britons did not focus centrally on an appeal to Magna Carta, as it had done in the preceding decades. Nevertheless, British radicals and reformers continued to cherish it as a bulwark of the people’s legal rights in particular. Its potency as a symbol of the rights of free men against oppressive acts of government remained undimmed. It was fully exploited, for example, by Sir Francis Burdett in 1810, when he was arrested on the orders of the House of Commons for severely criticizing its decision to order the arrest of the radical, John Gales Jones, who had publicized a public debate critical of attacks made in the House of Commons on the freedom of the press. Burdett refused to recognize the Speaker’s warrant for his arrest on a charge of committing a scandalous libel on the House of Commons. He was only committed to the Tower of London after troops had been called out in large numbers to escort him there. Huge crowds turned out to witness his arrest and to express support for the stand he was making.110 Like John Wilkes, Burdett was praised as a friend of liberty in many addresses from counties and boroughs. He was also represented as the champion and defender of Magna Carta in paintings and caricatures, and on a wide range of porcelain products.111 In the graphic print, A New Cure for Jacobinism or a Peep in the Tower (1810) by Charles Williams, Burdett is shown behind bars in the menagerie of the Tower of London, appealing to King George III and presenting him with a paper bearing the words ‘Magna Charta’ and ‘Trial by Jury’.112 In the graphic print, Modern St George attacking the Monster of Despotism (1810), by William Heath, Burdett wears armour and carries a shield inscribed ‘Bill of Rights’ and ‘Magna Charta’. He defends the ground of independence against a seven-headed monster guarding the gates to the treasury. The heads are those of government ministers.113 In the graphic print, A Model for Patriots or an Independant Legislator (1810), also by William Heath, Burdett stands on a pedestal inscribed ‘Bill of Rights’ and ‘Magna Charta’ and fights off four sea monsters.114 Just like Alderman Beardmore in the early 1760s, Burdett is depicted in Isaac Cruikshanks’s graphic print, The Arrest of Sir Fs Burdett MP (1810), as having been reading Magna Carta to his son at the very time of his arrest.115 In a letter to his constituents, published as a pamphlet, Burdett quoted chapter 29 of the 1225 version of Magna Carta on the title page and in the text he referred to the charter on many occasions when protesting that the House of Commons had no constitutional right to imprison Jones without trial.116 His defence of his speech in the House of Commons was also printed in William Cobbett’s Political Register, on 24 March 1810, and thence widely distributed across the country. Burdett’s arrest provoked several constituencies to praise his stance and to express support for his earlier efforts in 1809 to secure a reform of the country’s system of representation. On 20 April, Burdett replied to a letter from his Westminster constituents, promising that he would continue in future with his efforts to secure parliamentary reform:

Magna Charta and the old law of the land will then resume their empire; freedom will revive; … property and political power, which the law never separates, will be reunited; the King, replaced in the happy and dignified station allotted to him by the Constitution; the people … restored to their just and indisputable rights. … The question is now at issue; it must be ultimately determined whether we are henceforth top be slaves or free. Hold to the Laws, this great country may recover; forsake them, it will certainly perish.117


Released when parliament was prorogued, on 21 June, Burdett left the Tower discreetly, preventing the awaiting crowd from engaging in violent protests, but he went on for many years to play a major role in promoting the cause of parliamentary reform in the House of Commons.

Never again, however, would an individual reformer be so closely associated with the defence of the subject’s civil liberties by making such determined appeals to Magna Carta. Long after this, however, other political campaigns in Britain, such as those in support of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the efforts to secure the radical People’s Charter in the 1830s and 1840s, and the efforts of the suffragettes to secure the parliamentary franchise for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, continued to support their demands with references to Magna Carta. Appeals to the terms of this famous medieval charter of liberties, both real and supposed, have also been used in modern times to inform political and constitutional efforts across the world to secure the rights and liberties of all humanity.





1 Edward Jenks, ‘The Myth of Magna Carta’, Independent Review, 4 (1905), 260-273; Sidney Painter, ‘Magna Carta’, American Historical Review, 53 (1947), 42-49; C.H. McIlwain, ‘Due Process of Law in Magna Carta’, Columbia Law Review, 14 (1914), 27-51; and William Sharp McKechnie, Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John (2nd edn., Glasgow, 1914).

2 Faith Thompson, The First Century of Magna Carta: Why it persisted as a Document (Minneapolis, 1925); Faith Thompson, ‘Parliamentary Confirmations of the Great Charter’, American Historical Review, 38 (1933), 659-672; and Faith Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in the Making of the English Constitution 1300-1629 (Minneapolis, 1948).

3 Faith Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in the Making of the English Constitution 1300-1629, pp. 167-196 and 268-293; and Selected Readings and Commentaries on Magna Carta 1400-1604, ed. Sir John Baker, Selden Society, 132 (London, 2015).

4 Faith Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in the Making of the English Constitution 1300-1629, pp. 335-353; C.H. McIlwain, ‘Magna Carta and the Common Law’, in Magna Carta: Commemorative Essays, ed. Henry Eliot Malden (London, 1917), pp. 122-179; J.R. Maddicott, ‘Magna Carta and the Local Community’, Past and Present, 102 (1984), 25-65; David Carpenter, ‘English Peasants in Politics, 1258-1267’, Past and Present, 136 (1992), 3-42; S.T. Ambler, ‘Magna Carta: Its confirmation at Simon de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265’, English Historical Review, 130 (2015), 801-830; Maurice Ashley, Magna Carta in the Seventeenth Century (Charlottesville, VA, 1965); and J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (2nd edn., Cambridge, 1987).

5 King John had agreed to accept Magna Carta at a meeting with his rebellious barons at Runnymede in June 1215, but within ten weeks he had revoked it and Pope Innocent III had annulled it. This decision had led to civil war. In 1225 John’s son, Henry III, had voluntarily re-issued a revised and shortened version of Magna Carta. This version was the one frequently reissued and confirmed thereafter.

6 The Federal and State Constitutions, ed. Francis N. Thorpe (7 vols., Washington DC, 1909), VII, 3788; and A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede: Magna Carta and Constitutionalism in America (Charlottesville, VA, 1968), pp. 15, 19.

7 A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, p. 25.

8 Ibid., p. 54; and H.D. Hazeltine, ‘The Influence of Magna Carta on American Constitutional Development’, Columbia Law Review, 17 (1917), 12.

9 A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, pp. 37-48.

10 Ibid., pp. 213-214; and Magna Carta and the Rule of Law, ed. Daniel Barstow Magraw, Andrea Martinez and Roy Brownell II (Chicago, 2014), p. 160.

11 Stephen Hopkins, The Rights of the Colonies Examined (Providence, RI, 1765), p. 5.

12 Richard Bland, An Enquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (Williamsburg, 1766), cited in H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC, 1965), p. 147.

13 Stanley R. Hauer, ‘Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 98 (183), 879-898.

14 In the eighteenth century the great charter of liberty was often written as Magna Charta.

15 John Tucker, A Sermon preached at Cambridge [Massachusetts], before his Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq, Governor (Boston, 1771), p. 17.

16 H.T. Dickinson, ‘The Eighteenth Century Debate on the Sovereignty of Parliament’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 26 (1976), 189-210.

17 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (4 vols., Oxford, 1765-1769), I, 49.

18 Harry T. Dickinson, ‘America’, in The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke, ed. D.W. Dwan and C. Insole (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 156-167.

19 J.W. Gough, Fundamental Law in English Constitutional History (Oxford, 1955), pp. 174-213.

20 Josiah Tucker, A Letter from a Merchant in London to his Nephew in North America (London, 1766), p. 5. The same sentiment in exactly the same words can be found in William Pulteney, Thoughts on the present state of affairs with America, and the means of conciliation (London, 1778), p. 86. See also The Rights of Parliament vindicated, on the occasion of the late Stamp-Act, in which is exposed the conduct of the American Colonists (London, 1766), pp. 6, 14.

21 H.T. Dickinson, ‘Britain’s Imperial Sovereignty: The Ideological Case against the American Colonists’, in Britain and the American Revolution, ed. H. T. Dickinson (London, 1998), pp. 73-80.

22 David J. Hulsebosch, ‘The Ancient Constitution and the Extending Empire: Sir Edward Coke’s British Jurisprudence’, Law and History Review, 21 (2003), 475-482.

23 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, I, 104-105.

24 Ibid., I, 105.

25 H.T. Dickinson, ‘Britain’s Imperial Sovereignty: The Ideological Case against the American Colonists’, in Britain and the American Revolution, ed. H. T. Dickinson, pp. 86-94.

26 David J. Hulsebosch, ‘The Ancient Constitution and the Extending Empire: Sir Edward Coke’s British Jurisprudence’, Law and History Review, 21 (2003), 439-440.

27 Sinclair Hamilton, ‘“The earliest Device of the Colonies” and some other early devices’, Princeton University Library Chronicle, 10 (1949), pp. 117-123.

28 A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, p. 133.

29 David S. Lovejoy, ‘“Rights Imply Equality”: The Case against Admiralty Jurisdiction in America, 1764-1776’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 16 (1959), 459-484.

30 Joyce Lee Malcolm, in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent (2nd edn., London, 2015), p. 125.

31 The Proceedings of the North American Colonies in consequence of the Stamp Act (London, 1766), p. 10; and Prologue to Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766, ed. Edmund S. Morgan (Chapel Hill, NC, 1959), p. 52.

32 The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, ed. C.J. Headley and J.H. Trumbull (15 vols., Hartford, Conn, 1881-90), XII, 424; and Prologue to Revolution, ed. Edmund S. Morgan, p. 55.

33 Magna Carta and the Rule of Law, ed. Daniel Barstow Magraw, et al., pp. 66-68.

34 Joyce Lee Malcolm in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent, p. 126.

35 John Adams’s ‘Admiralty Notebook’, quoted in David S. Lovejoy, ‘“Rights Imply Equality” The Case against Admiralty Jurisdiction in America, 1764-1776’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 16 (1959), 481.

36 Joyce Lee Malcolm in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent, p. 126.

37 H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 164.

38 http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolves.asp, accessed on 20 May 2015.

39 ‘Drayton’s Charge to the Grand Jury of South Carolina, 23 April 1776’, in Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, ed. Hezekiah Niles (Baltimore, 1822), p. 72.

40 http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html, accessed 24 August 2015.

41 A Collection of Tracts, on the subjects of taxing the British colonies in America, and regulating their trade (4 vols., London, 1773), III, 105.

42 The Proceedings of the North American Colonies in consequence of the Stamp Act (London, 1766), p. 11; and Prologue to Revolution, ed. Edmund S. Morgan, p. 52.

43 Quoted in H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 175.

44 Quoted in Magna Carta Uncovered, ed. Anthony Arlidge and Igor Judge (Oxford, 2014), p. 158.

45 Quoted in John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: II, The Authority to Tax (Madison, Wisconsin, 1987), p. 108.

46 Quoted in Law, Liberty, and Parliament: Selected Essays on the Writings of Sir Edward Coke, ed. Allen D. Boyer (Indianapolis, 2004), p. 179. See also Hutchinson’s comment of 25 September 1765, quoted in ibid., p. 180.

47 Authentic Account of the Proceedings of the Congress held at New York, in MDCCLXV, on the subject of the American Stamp Act (New York, 1767), p. 14; and Prologue to Revolution, ed. Edmund S. Morgan, p. 65.

48 Jonathan Mayhew, The Snare Broken (Boston, 1766), p. 4.

49 Quoted in H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 175.

50 Moses Mather, America’s Appeal to the Impartial World (Hartford, Conn., 1775), pp. 12, 25, 36-37.

51 See, for example, Daniel Dulany, Considerations on the propriety of imposing taxes on the British Colonies for the purpose of raising a revenue, by Act of Parliament (2nd edn., New York, 1765), p. 31; and [Arthur Lee,] An Appeal to the Justice and Interests of the People of Great Britain, in the present disputes with America (London, 1774), p. 7.

52 The Controversial Letters of John Wilkes, Esq, the Rev. John Horne, and their principle [sic] adherents (London, 1771), p. 164.

53 James Burgh, Political Disquisitions: Or, an enquiry into public errors, defects and abuses (3 vols., London, 1774-75), II, 310.

54 John Sainsbury, Disaffected Patriots: London Supporters of Revolutionary America 1769-1782 (Kingston and Montreal, and Gloucester, 1987), pp. 106-113, 118.

55 The ‘Circular Letter from the London Association’ and ‘Resolutions of the London Association’ In The Crisis, LXXXVIII, pp. 554-556 and the ‘Prefatory Address from the London association’ printed in The Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North America, now met in general congress at Philadelphia, setting forth the causes and necessity of taking up arms (London, 1775), pp. iii-vi.

56 The Golden Passage in the Great Charter of England, called Magna Charta … with Lord Coke’s Remarks and Explanations. Printed for the Use of the London Association (London, 1776).

57 Taxation, Tyranny. Addressed to Samuel Johnson (London, 1775), pp. 26-27. Dr Samuel Johnson had recently published a pamphlet, Taxation No Tyranny, which supported the right of the Westminster parliament to tax the American colonies.

58 John Phillip Reid, ‘“In our Contracted Sphere”: The Constitutional Contract, the Stamp Act Crisis, and the Coming of the American Revolution’, Columbia Law Review, 76 (1976), 21-47; and Thomas C. Grey, ‘Origins of the Unwritten Constitution: Fundamental Law in American Revolutionary Thought’, Stanford Law Review, 30 (1978), 843-893.

59 James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proven (Boston, 1764), p. 31.

60 H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 126.

61 Quoted by Joyce Lee Malcolm, in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent, p. 129.

62 Quoted in A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, p. 185.

63 Ibid., p. 184.

64 The Votes and Proceedings of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, in town meetings assembled, according to law (Boston, 1772), p. 8.

65 Joyce Lee Malcolm, in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent, p. 129.

66 H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 141.

67 Quoted in ibid., p. 92.

68 Quoted in J.C.D. Clark, The Language of Liberty 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge, 1994), p. 360.

69 H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience, p. 123.

70 An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies (1776) in The Collected Works of James Wilson, ed. K.L. Hall and M.D. Hall (2 vols., Indianapolis, 2007), I, 49.

71 Magna Carta and its Modern Legacy, ed. Robert Hazell and James Melton (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 9 and 83; and H.D. Hazeltine, ‘The Influence of Magna Carta on American Constitutional Development’, Columbia Law Review, 17 (1917), 25-26.

72 Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, ed. Hezekiah Niles, pp. 123-124; and Magna Carta and the Rule of Law, ed. Daniel Barstow Magraw et al., p. 161.

73 Joyce Lee Malcolm in Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, ed. Nicholas Vincent, pp. 131-132; and A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, pp. 204-213.

74 William F. Swindler, Magna Carta: Legend and Legacy (New York, 1965), p. 228.

75 A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede, pp. 209-211.

76 Ibid., p. 225; and Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York, 1996), p. 326. Wilson’s view was commended in Alexander Contee Hanson, Remarks on the proposed plan of a federal government, addressed to the citizens of the United States of America, and particularly to the people of Maryland (Annapolis, MD, 1788), p. 27.

77 Pauline Maier, Ratification: The Public Debate on the Constitution 1787-1788 (New York, 2010).

78 Alexander Hamilton, ‘Certain General and Miscellaneous Objections to the Constitution Considered and Answered’,



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