Magna Carta, basis of U.S. freedoms, goes on display at MFA

July 11, 2014
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One of only four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta—an English document written in 1215 that is the foundation for many democracies around the world—will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) through Sept. 1

The Magna Carta Libertatum (The Great Charter of the Liberties of England) was the first legal document imposed upon a king of England—King John—by a group of his subjects that limited his powers protected their rights. Rights guaranteed by that document still in effect in England include the freedom of the English Church and the right to due process.

Many of the liberties assured to New England colonists were based on the Magna Carta, as Colonial legal proceedings were largely based on the English system. Later, it was an inspiration for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Also on display are two manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence, penned by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and a copy of the U.S. Constitution annotated by Elbridge Gerry, a member of the original Constitutional Convention that drafted it, as well as a former U.S. vice president and Massachusetts governor. Those documents are on loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The version of the Magna Carta on display at the MFA is usually housed in the Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England.

Some MFA collection items on display in the exhibit include the Sons of Liberty Bowl (1768) by Paul Revere, which is engraved with the words “Magna Charta [sic]” and “Bill of Rights,” and two of Revere’s “Minuteman Notes” money—one of which depicts the words “Magna Carta.”

The exhibition also includes portraits, marble busts, and historical documents related to several of the Founding Fathers, presidents and abolitionists, particularly from Massachusetts, who were inspired by the liberties outlined in Magna Carta.

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