The display of the Magna Carta, along with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, at the Museum of Fine Arts is a wonderful opportunity to discover the basis of modern civil liberties and to reflect on these often praised yet little-read documents.
The Magna Carta did nothing for commoners and is largely evaporated from English law today. But its overarching principle—that the king is not above the law—resounds through Western history. It was among the core inspirations of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Reading our founding documents puts modern times in perspective. When someone denounces the “tyranny” of today’s government, it is useful to recall that to the Colonists, that meant the actual dissolving of local legislatures by a king, and that most of those Founding Fathers were themselves slaveholders. On the other hand, it is also striking to see the existential threat the likes of National Security Agency spying poses to the elegantly simple First and Fourth Amendments.
Most of all, it is good to remember that our rights were born of struggles that continue today. The MFA’s exhibit includes a copy of the Constitution annotated by Elbridge Gerry, the former Massachusetts governor who refused to sign the document originally because it did not have a Bill of Rights. Writing down freedoms is just one way to defend them in a never-ending fight.