A Basis for Justice
Individuals living in England in the early thirteenth century lived in a feudal society. The king granted favors to his subjects in return for their loyalty and obedience. His subjects and, most of all, the king himself believed the Almighty God gave him the right to rule. The king's law was the law of the land. No earthly document or written law was above what the king declared as lawful and just.
King John, who reigned from 1199 through 1216, abused his power. He demanded of his land barons (wealthy noblemen) unreasonably high payment fees, took away their property and possessions, and imprisoned anyone who did not cooperate with him. By 1215 the land barons had quite enough of King John. Threatening civil war, the barons wrote down their grievances and the remedies they demanded. King John reluctantly signed the document on June 15, 1215, in Runnymede Meadow on the banks of the River Thames.
The document signed at Runnymede was never intended to be a grand and sweeping new declaration of English principles of law. It was a quick agreement to end a political crisis between the king and land barons. For the first time in history, however, a king had agreed in writing that he was not above the rules of the land and that his actions could be controlled by a written document. The document came to be known as the Magna Carta. Two of its clauses, numbers 39 and 40, became the basis for English and later American justice. The wording in clauses 39 and 40 became the seeds for due process of law and trial by jury.
These three concepts—the king was not above the law, due process of law, and trial by jury—were brought to the New World by the first English settlers at the beginning of the 1600s. The first excerpt is from the Magna Carta and gives a sample of the clauses written at Runnymede on the River Thames. The excerpt is surrounded by explanations of this most historic document.
The path to American representative government was not a straight one. By 1611 the English colonists barely survived year to year. Back in England the Virginia Company, in charge of overseeing the colonists, issued a harsh set of rules called the "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall," by which every colonist was to live day to day. The company hoped to set a moral foundation and strict adherence to rules that would allow the colony to survive and prosper.
One of the laws required every colonist "upon the . . . tolling of the bell" to enter the church to hear a "divine" sermon. The bell tolled twice each day. Another law stated, should a man or woman "willfully pluck up" any root, herb, flower, or grape from another's garden the punishment was death.
The second excerpt is a sampling from the "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall." The "Lawes" were hardly examples of due process and trial by jury. Fortunately the colony began to prosper and by 1619 the first elected assembly of colonists met in the Jamestown (Virginia) church and, among other topics, discussed the radical idea of crafting laws themselves. The harsh "Lawes" were done away with.
From the time of the first settlements up until the Revolutionary War (1775–83), colonial law had changed a great deal. Following the war, the distinctly new American legal system that emerged was rooted in basic principles of the Magna Carta and in the experiences of those early colonists. As colonists struggled to shape their legal system, the darkest and perhaps most infamous of legal episodes occurred in Salemtown, Essex County, Massachusetts, from May through October 1692. Known as the Salem Witchcraft Trials, 154 individuals were accused of witchcraft. Of the 154 accused, 42 were actually prosecuted and 19 executed. Read about these early extreme violations of civil liberties in the third excerpt, the "Examination of Sarah Good."
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