June 1, 2015

Big Anniversary for Liberty

I'll suggest you read Danial Hannan's superb column on the upcoming 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta from this weekend's WSJ. I have been pounding on the importance of the Magna Carta lately in discussing Adam Smith's inspired thoughts on the American Colonies and his system of "natural liberty."

Clearly we owe a lot.

Eight hundred years ago next month, on a reedy stretch of riverbank in southern England, the most important bargain in the history of the human race was struck. I realize that's a big claim, but in this case, only superlatives will do. As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was "the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot."

And yet, I am hoping you'll indulge me in reading one more piece. David Boaz of Cato corrects (I might say augments, but that's not Boaz's tone) Hannan, suggesting he missed the American improvement in extending liberty beyond British citizenry to a system of universal rights.
It's true that the colonists came here with the spirit of English liberty running in their veins. They brought with them the books of Locke and Sydney, the examples of Lilburne and Hampden, the writings of Edward Coke. In the 18th century they read Cato's Letters and William Blackstone. They petitioned Parliament and the king for their rights as Englishmen.

But the Declaration of Independence marks a break in that thinking. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write "an expression of the American mind," he did not appeal to the rights of Englishmen. Instead, the Americans declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

They appealed not to the British Parliament nor to King George III, but rather to "the opinions of mankind...a candid world...the Supreme Judge of the world."

I am reminded of Helen Raleigh's [Review Corner] saying "Confucius said many wonderful things, but he did not say 'all men are created equal.'"

UPDATE: No WSJ access? Somebody sent me a PDF of the Hannan piece.

Philosophy Posted by John Kranz at June 1, 2015 10:45 AM
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