Eight hundred years ago, on June 15, 1215, a group of English noblemen stood in Runnymede meadow along the Thames River and said, “No”—no to unlimited monarchical power, no to confiscation of property with impunity, no to legal proceedings without due process. These so-called rebel barons persuaded the reluctant King John to affix his seal to the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.” This was a major step toward the conception and implementation of properly limited government.
Specifically, the Magna Carta set boundaries within which individuals, as well as corporations such as the English church and the City of London, would be free to act without unjustified government intrusion. The charter stated that the government could arrest people only for violations of publicly known laws; that all arrests must be conducted publicly, with a credible witness attesting to the charges; and that the accused were entitled to a swift trial by a jury of their peers. It further stated that the government could not take merchants’ or homeowners’ goods or land without prompt and just compensation, and that the government may not impose excessive fines—meaning, fines that amount to an unjust taking of one’s means of living.
The Magna Carta’s main tenets were integrated into English statute law by 1300 and common law thereafter. . . .