Samuel Johnson famously said: “That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.” Last week I thus went to Salisbury Cathedral, which contains one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. The timing for stirring appropriate emotion too was auspicious. Today is the eight hundredth anniversary of the document’s signing.
Unfortunately, the contemporary setting made enthusiasm for the Magna Carta’s contribution to liberty and the rule of law harder to sustain. Instead of focusing on its history or specific elements of its reception into the English legal system, the Cathedral chose to open its exhibit with a video that portrayed various social movements whose connections with Magna Carta were sometimes obscure. One was absurd: an attack on Israel’s blockade of Gaza. One does not even need to agree with this policy to recognize that empowering Hamas, a theocratic and lawless group that regularly engages in summary executions of people unlikely enough to be under its thumb, hardly advances any ideals of liberty or legality. The video showed more about the ineffectual left-liberalism of today’s Church of England than anything useful about Magna Carta.
In the New York Times today, Tom Ginsburg provided some reasons that whatever the surrounding exhibit, a visitor should not get too excited about Magna Carta.