Background & Contents
A description by the author, Dr Zachary Gorman:
Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom’s Symbol Over a Millennium is the follow-up to Magna Carta: The Tax Revolt That Gave Us Liberty, written by John Roskam and Chris Berg, and released in 2015 for the 800th anniversary of the momentous events at Runnymede. While that volume traced the important link between resistance to arbitrary taxation and the emergence of political liberty, this book looks at the Charter’s broader history as one answer to such fundamental questions as: Where do we find our freedom? How do we protect the rights of the individual against the attacks and encroachments of the state, from tyranny, and from anarchy?
The Great Charter’s answer is that freedom can be found in history and custom, in the time-honoured wisdom of our forebears. Magna Carta was and is a powerful symbol of our collective past, which over the centuries has been repeatedly invoked to demand freedom in the present. It is an incredibly successful example of the Burkean idea of grounding liberty in tangible lived experience, rather than in abstract theory.
History has taught us that each generation has to fight for its freedom. As former US president Ronald Reagan put it:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.
This fragility makes history and custom so important, because in establishing recognised societal norms they offer a way to fortify our freedom. If nations appreciate what has gone into winning liberty they are more likely to recognise its value and protect it from even nascent threats. The roots of successful political institutions—such as those Australians inherited from our British past—grow deep, and this is precisely what allows them to weather storms.
The difference between the success of the American Revolution and the promethean destruction of the French, is that one built on an existing foundation and the other tried to rebuild society from the ground up. Once the French had thrown out all existing anchors to the past, they found they were constructing their tower of liberty on a base of sand. In contrast, the story of Magna Carta is the story of an historical icon constantly being summoned to demand ever-expanding concepts of justice and liberty, growing from the firm basis of precedents found in the past.
At a time when appeals to abstract rights would have been dismissed out of hand, the Barons demanded that King John re-establish the laws of Edward the Confessor and what were thought to be ancient customary rights. They wanted the right to only be levied customary taxes at customary levels, customary justice and a fair interpretation of customary feudal duties, and an ancient right to be consulted on important matters. In turn the Charter would be reinvented by Englishmen of the Stuart era to justify parliamentary supremacy, the Americans to claim no taxation without representation, and the Australians who insisted that the convict stain did not deny them their British birthright. Indeed, the book reveals for the first time how Magna Carta was directly involved in the advent of Australian democracy.
Every community which has not a free government, is devoid of that security of person and property which has been found to be the chief stimulus to individual exertion, and the only basis on which the social edifice can repose in a solid and durable tranquillity.
— Statistical, Historical, and Political
Description of The Colony of New South Wales,
W. C. Wentworth, Esq., 1819
1: An Accident in the Forest
2: Henry’s Charter of Liberties
3: Defining the English through Augustine
4: Athelstan and the Anglo-Saxon Political System
5: Ethelred and the Failure of Counsel
6: John and Thomas
7: Lionheart’s Crusade
8: The Cause
10: Montfort and the Rise of Parliament
11: Aquinas, Fortescue, and the Forty-Four Confirmations
12: Edward Coke and the Monarchomachs
13: William Penn and the Glorious Revolution
14: The American Revolution and the Spread of ‘British’ Rights
(An extract of this chapter appeared in the Summer 2020/21, IPA Review, here.)
15: Australian Liberty