Eight hundred years ago this month, in June 1215, a meeting occurred at the English meadow of Runnymede between rebellious Englishmen, who had grown weary of the arbitrary rule of the Crown, and an all-powerful king, who wisely decided he must listen to his subjects' grievances to avoid a civil war. Rudyard Kipling spoke of this meeting in his poem, "The Reeds of Runnymede," which begins:
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
Never miss a local story.
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
If those reeds along the River Thames could speak, they'd tell the tale of the meeting at the meadow between the Englishmen and the king. Those reeds would recall a victory for the rule of law when King John affixed his seal to a document called the "Charter of Liberties," which became known as Magna Carta ("Great Charter"). Magna Carta came to symbolize that no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law and that all sovereigns must recognize and respect the individual rights of the people.
Although born in England, Magna Carta accompanied the colonists to America. Cited frequently during the American Revolution by patriots such as Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as a powerful symbol of liberty, Magna Carta served as an inspiration for many of the rights enshrined in our own Constitution, including due process, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the right to travel. That iconic moment in the meadows of Runnymede has been memorialized on monuments, murals, paintings, friezes, and on the bronze doors of the United States Supreme Court. Magna Carta not only established rights for 13th-century Englishmen, but in the words of United States Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., it "laid the foundation for the ascent of liberty."
As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of this fundamental symbol of liberty, we should also remember that preservation of Magna Carta's values requires vigilance. As Kipling concludes in his poem:
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!
May the tales from the reeds of Runnymede never be forgotten.