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MAGNA CARTA - supporting every one of our unique castles

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Magna Carta, supporting every one of our unique castles

Today is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta — England’s “Great Charter”, signed June 15, 1215 — a document that has had enormous consequences on every free man’s life.

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During the decade or so before America became America, the homes of some colonists were being unreasonably searched by British authorities. Many in Massachusetts — rich and poor alike — were fed up with the abuse. In 1761, one such individual, a lawyer named James Otis, decided to speak out. Using the Magna Carta as a partial defense, he gave an impassioned speech before the local Supreme Court, including these words: “One of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.”

That day in court, Otis was ultimately arguing for the equality of all men under the law, including the legal protection of their property. He didn’t only defend what was then deemed the rights *of Englishmen*, nor did he only support supposedly rich white men (as is often wrongly claimed about the Founders of this nation). No, he set the stage for a principled defense of the rights *of all men*.

As a young John Adams recalls,

[Otis] asserted that every man, merely natural, was an independent sovereign, subject to no law but the law written on his heart and revealed to him by his Maker, in the constitution of his nature and the inspiration of his understanding and his conscience. His right to his life, his liberty, no created being could rightfully contest. Nor was his right to his property less incontestable. The club that he had snapped from a tree, for a staff or for defense, was his own. His bow and arrow were his own; if by a pebble he had killed a partridge or a squirrel, it was his own. No creature, man or beast, had a right to take it from him. If he had taken an eel or a smelt or a sculpin, it was his property.…


He asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable. That they never could be surrendered. … Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten. Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught; and I have all my life shuddered, and still shudder, at the consequences that may be drawn from such premises.


As Adams understood, “the consequences” of the ideas underlying Otis’ speech would eventually shake the world. Unfortunately, as Adams also later came to understand, those radical ideas — the “inherent and inalienable” rights on which freedom is founded — can easily be misunderstood (and misrepresented). For instance, whereas many today connect the word “property” with power and coercion, those who originally fought for individual rights understood that possessions are inextricably linked with liberty … every man’s liberty. For they knew firsthand that if one is not legally protected in his unique “castle” — whether a wealthy banker in her estate or a poor farmer in his shack — then we are at the mercy of thieves: dangerous everyday criminals wanting what we have, or paternal government officials deciding what we can and cannot have.

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As (relatively) self-governing freemen, we have a lot to gain from reading the principled words of such revolutionaries as Otis and Adams, as well as from being familiar with the historical documents they referenced when defending our American experiment in self-government and freedom.

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The Magna Carta was used by James Otis and other early colonists in defense of English rights, including property rights. Over time, the rights of *Englishmen* transformed into the rights of *all men* (including “negroes”, whom John Adams defended throughout his life). Eventually, the implicit notions of political freedom in the now 800-year-old “Great Charter” were explicitly developed in our later and greater charter: the Constitution of the United States of America.

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A copy of the Magna Carta can be found at the US National Archives in Washington, DC, displayed near the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Jesse McCarthy is the founder of jemslife, an educational resource offering personalized teacher and parent coaching.

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