Magna Carta at the Library of Congress

Detail from the 1215 King John Magna Carta of Lincoln Cathedral

Detail from the 1215 King John Magna Carta of Lincoln CathedralFor those interested in legal history, the Library of Congress will exhibit one of only four surviving copies of Magna Carta, the great charter of rights and liberties, from Nov. 6, 2014, through Jan. 19, 2015. The exhibition celebrates the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and tells the story of the charter’s creation in England, reinterpretation through the centuries, and emergence as an enduring document of constitutional law in the United States. The 1215 Magna Carta is on loan from Lincoln Cathedral in England. The document is traveling first to two locations in Massachusetts from July 2 through Nov. 2, 2014. Its final stop in America will be the Library of Congress. The Library’s 10-week exhibition features medieval manuscripts, published works, prints, photographs, maps, posters and annotated draft opinions by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The exhibition shows how the interpretation of Magna Carta through the centuries led to the constitutional guarantees of individual liberty brought forth by the Founding Fathers of the United States. It describes how a number of the most basic principles of the U.S. Constitution—consent of the governed, the right to a trial by jury, the right to due process of law, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, and limited government under the law—can be traced to Magna Carta. Many of those rights are still being litigated in U.S. courts today.

The narrative of the presentation starts with the creation of Magna Carta (“Great Charter”), which was sealed in 1215 in a grassy meadow at Runnymede, by the Thames, when English barons coerced King John into granting them a number of rights and liberties. It covers the contents and purpose of Magna Carta, and the great charter’s re-issue by subsequent English kings and Parliament. The exhibition focuses on Magna Carta’s rediscovery by English jurists of the 17th Century, especially Sir Edward Coke, who made Magna Carta into the fundamental source of constitutional guarantees of individual liberties; Magna Carta’s adoption and interpretation in Colonial America; and its influence on the creation of the Constitution. The relevance of Magna Carta is shown by tracing four important areas of constitutional jurisprudence from their medieval origins through present-day litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court. A small section of the exhibit will highlight the interpretation of Magna Carta in art, music, drama and cultural commemorations.

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