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Happy 789th, Magna Carta
At a birthday luncheon thrown by the descendants of its signatories.
MAGNA CARTA IS THE PRODUCT of a 13th-century power struggle between English nobility and the unpopular tax-and-spend illiberal King John. Faced with angry barons arming themselves for civil war, John agreed to sign the "Great Charter," which promised, among other things, that "no one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman." All but two of the charter's provisions have since been repealed in Britain, yet Magna Carta remains the symbolic bedrock on which Britain's government sits. It limited the previously unfettered power of the British monarch and codified the rights of the governed.
Americans, no lovers of royal tyranny, have also embraced the document, and it has made frequent cameos in Supreme Court cases through the years. Most recently, Justice Stephen Breyer reached back to Magna Carta during oral arguments in the Yaser Hamdi detention case in order to give historical heft to his contention that detained citizens are "entitled to a neutral decision maker and an opportunity to present proofs and arguments." Breyer was alluding to one of the two clauses still on the books in Britain, one that states that "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned...except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." (The other remaining provision protects city governments from royal usurpations of their authorityan unlikely stunt for a modern British monarch, but you never know.) Justice David Souter, in his concurring opinion in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, paid similar homage. He wrote that in checking the power of the executive branch to detain citizens without having charged them with a crime, "we are heirs to a tradition given voice 800 years ago by Magna Carta."
It's been a banner year for the charter, so you might expect that the annual meeting of the Baronial Order of Magna Charta would be especially festive. The order convened on a Saturday in June at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Essington, Penn., just outside Philadelphia, to mark the 789th anniversary of the document's signing. The order has been meeting on or about June 15 (the day the document was signed in 1215) since 1898, when it was founded in a redbrick townhouse a few blocks from Independence Hall, where the United States Constitution was drafted. Originally known as the Baronial Order of Runnemede, after the English field where Magna Carta was signed, the organization was most likely the creation of Charles Browning, a 19th-century Philadelphia gentleman and genealogist.
Membership in the order is generally contingent upon being able to trace your lineage back to one or more of the 25 barons responsible for holding King John to the terms of Magna Carta. But tracing your roots sounds like a more daunting task than it is. The year of the order's founding, Charles Browning published a genealogy called The Magna Charta Barons and Their American Descendants. Today's barons have only to trace their lineage back to the 19th-century Americans in Browning's book.
The order's by-laws focus almost exclusively on meeting protocol, the qualifications for membership, and the titles of the group's leaders, including Marshal (president), Keeper of the Signet (secretary), and Genealogist of the Order, whose role is to certify the "pedigrees" of prospective members. These days, however, membership can be "considered" for non-descendants who are "of good character and have an interest in the purposes of the Order." The BOMC was founded as an all-male organization, but went co-ed in 1995. (The National Society of Magna Charta Dames, founded in 1909 and also based in Philadelphia, remains more popular with women.)
Despite these signs of progress, the BOMC is still a hereditary social club. Though the United States banned inherited titles at its inception, BOMC members refer to one another as "barons." The buzz during the cocktail hour was not about Magna Carta's return to prominence, but about whether the society should get tough with members who have fallen behind in paying their dues. There was talk that delinquents should be expelled from the order.
Many of the barons seemed inclined to take a similarly hard line with the detained enemy combatants. Leroy Moody Lewis III, an otherwise avuncular middle-aged software company executive and descendant of nine barons, was nettled by Souter and Breyer's appropriation of the charter. "You're trying to trace that back to the Magna Carta?" he asked. Lewis then explained that the most important section of Magna Carta, as far as he was concerned, was its recognition of "the inherent property right," which prevented the king from summarily confiscating the land holdings of noblemen.
Kurt Kilmer, a baron from upstate New York who described himself as "the pauper of the group," was more sympathetic to the plaintiffs. "You want to learn about rights?" he asked. "Just be a truck driver." He said his time behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer has taught him the importance of limiting governmental power. In dealing with highway patrolmen, he explained, you can't rely on the courtesies of friendship or social rank to protect you from abuses of authority at the hands of the state. His interest in the inalienable rights of man notwithstanding, Kilmer confessed that he was mostly at the luncheon to do a little networking, or, as he called it, "social mining."
The group does make some efforts to support the legacy of Magna Carta. The order has a seat on the board of directors of the Magna Carta museum in Runnemede, England, which means a member can attend annual board meetings, though it's rare for anyone to do so. "It's a long way to go for an hour-and-a-half meeting," said Denis Woodfield, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive from Princeton, N.J.
In 1992, the BOMC created the Magna Carta Research Foundation, a collection of Magna Carta-related books housed at the nation's oldest law library, the Jenkins Memorial Law Library in Philadelphia. According to Regina Smith, the librarian in charge of the collection, nothing has been contributed to it since its founder, an attorney, historian, and BOMC member named David Stivison, died in 1997. "Someone should really revive it," Smith said, though she didn't think she was the one to do it. "My last name was Laskowski before it was Smith," she said.
THE MAIN EVENT OF EACH YEAR'S GET-TOGETHER is a lecture on a topic relating to Magna Carta. This year's lecture was given by Dr. Robert Armstead Naud, a member of the BOMC and a historian who has taught at Columbia and NYU. The subject was King John's House of Plantagenet, one of the first truly pan-European dynasties, with crowned heads reigning from England to Italy. The invitation to the luncheon informed the barons that Naud would discuss "Eleanor of Aquitaine, who first married Louis the Handsome (Louis VII) and then married Henry II (who was also handsome)."
Focusing primarily on genealogy, Naud's lecture sounded at times like one of the "begat" chapters of the Bible. A number of the elderly barons nodded off. The audience perked up, however, when the discussion turned to the Crusades. Naud projected a slide depicting the execution of 5,000 crusaders captured in Jerusalem; in the foreground, an Arab warrior wielded a sword over a kneeling, blindfolded Westerner. The image evoked the beheadings that have become a trademark of the insurgents in Iraq. One early victim was Philadelphia businessman Nick Berg, whose execution had been closely followed in the city's papers in the weeks preceding this year's BOMC event.
Naud had segued from Runnemede to Jerusalem because, as he explained, many of the signers of Magna Carta went off to fight in the Crusades. Naud's detour might also have had something to do with the Military Order of Crusades, an organization for the American descendants of crusaders that became part of the BOMC in 1995. The groups merged in part because of the historical overlap Naud had elucidated. The other reason was that the MOC was running low on members and cash.
Magna Carta has fared better in historical hindsight than the CrusadesPresident George W. Bush was chastised for suggesting that America's response to 9/11 was tantamount to a Crusadebut the BOMC barons seemed happy to have the MOC members among their ranks. "At one time or another, everybody's ancestors have done something that they're not proud of," said Baron Lewis. Whether their ancestors are illustrious for rekindling the flame of liberty or for igniting a thousand-year conflict between East and West seemed not to be a distinction of particular interest.