Magna Carta tug-of-war

The Magna Carta is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through the end of the month.
The Magna Carta is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through the end of the month.

The Magna Carta, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through the end of the month, isn’t the kind of artwork you’d find on a coffee mug or a dorm room poster. The eminent document is a disarmingly modest scrap of parchment with tiny script in medieval Latin scrawled 200 years before the printing press. But the charter, a foundational document for constitutional democracy and our own Bill of Rights, does resemble a contemporary piece of art in one way: Everyone who sees it seems to bring their own interpretation of what it means.

The Magna Carta is on its 800th anniversary tour, culminating next year at Runnymede, England, where King John signed the statement of rights and responsibilities to calm a rebellion among his barons. To offer some context, the MFA’s exhibition includes other items that reference the great charter. Paul Revere’s “Sons of Liberty Bowl” commemorates the 92 Massachusetts legislators who, “undaunted by the Insolent Menaces of Villains in Power,” stood by their formal protest of unfair taxes under Britain’s Townsend Acts. The bowl depicts two flags, one representing the Bill of Rights, the other the Magna Carta. There are also hand-written drafts of the Declaration of Independence by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and a portrait of Paul Cuffe, a black freeman who in 1780 petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the right to vote. “You just kind of see all these webs going back to the document in this little case,” said Gerald Ward, the MFA’s senior consulting curator.

Ward happens also to be a member of the New Hampshire legislature, so he knows about the bill filed there last session requiring any new legislation to show its derivation in “a direct quote from the Magna Carta.” The bill, filed by three Republican House freshmen evidently taking the concept of originalism to a new level, failed to clear its committee.


Tea Party tax protesters find talking points in the Magna Carta, but so has the American Civil Liberties Union, and several Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt invoked the document in his “Four Freedoms” address in 1941. John F. Kennedy proclaimed it was “time for an urban Magna Carta” in a speech to the US Conference of Mayors during his 1958 senatorial campaign, setting out principles for a new social compact.

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Then there is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who earlier this month cited the Magna Carta in an effort to transcend partisan divides. In a speech to the American Bar Association in Boston, Roberts reminded his audience that the venerable document was used to settle a “feudal squabble” and ultimately established the rule of law “as a unifying force in society.” He urged the members of the bench and bar to “rise above particular partisan debates,” saying that “we on the bench can bolster public confidence by exercising independent judgment to reach sound decisions, carefully explained.”

There is a certain poignancy to Roberts’s remarks, because the court he presides over is perhaps the most explicitly partisan in history. “Split Definitive,” a recent study by professors at William and Mary law school and Ohio State University, examines thousands of Supreme Court decisions going back to 1800 to argue that today’s court is more starkly divided than ever along party lines. This is the first time in US history, the authors note, when at least one Democratic appointee to the court was not more conservative than at least one Republican appointee, and vice-versa.(For example, the study had rated retired justice John Paul Stevens, appointed by Republican Gerald Ford, as more liberal overall in his rulings than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton.) Far from being a bulwark against the country’s partisanship, it seems the Roberts court is more a symptom of it.

Liberal and conservative partisans will likely continue to lay claim to the Magna Carta, just as they do the US Constitution; that squabble is also part of democracy. Standing with Ward, surrounded by the evidence of mankind’s long struggle to reconcile individual liberty and social equality, it’s easy to feel how slowly — and unsteadily — the wheels of justice turn.

“Freedom is a delicate thing,” Ward said. But just like the nation’s founding documents, it belongs to everyone.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.