September 18, 2014 The Great Charter's Enduring Influence

Library of Congress Exhibition to Illustrate Magna Carta’s Impact on Laws and Liberties

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Contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639

The Library of Congress on Nov. 6 will open the exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and to illustrate the great charter’s influence on laws and liberties throughout the centuries.

The centerpiece of the 10-week exhibition will be Magna Carta on loan from Lincoln Cathedral in England, one of only four surviving copies issued in 1215. The rare document and 76 items drawn from the collections at the Library of Congress will be on display from Thursday, Nov. 6, through Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, on the second level of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C. The exhibition will be free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

The exhibition also celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta’s first visit to the Library of Congress. In 1939, after a six-month public viewing of Magna Carta in the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, the document traveled to the Library of Congress for safekeeping during World War II. The Library placed Magna Carta on exhibit until the U.S. entry into the war, when it then sent the treasured document to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Magna Carta returned to England in 1946.

Only four issues of Magna Carta from 1215 exist today. Two are held by the British Library, one by Salisbury Cathedral and the fourth, held by Lincoln Cathedral, is considered to be in the best condition.

“Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” will feature medieval manuscripts, published works, prints, photographs, maps, posters and annotated draft opinions by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Library’s exhibition will show how the interpretation of Magna Carta through the centuries led to the constitutional guarantees of individual liberty brought forth by the Founding Fathers of the United States. It will describe how a number of the most basic principles of the U.S. Constitution—consent of the governed, the right to a trial by jury, the right to due process of law, freedom from unlawful imprisonment and limited government under the law—can be traced to Magna Carta. Also, liberties associated with Magna Carta are not just for the history books; many of those liberties are still being litigated in U.S. courts today

The exhibit’s narrative will start with the creation of Magna Carta (“Great Charter”), which was sealed in 1215 in a grassy meadow at Runnymede, by the Thames, when barons coerced King John into granting a number of rights and liberties. It will cover this conflict, the contents and purpose of Magna Carta and its re-issue by subsequent kings and Parliament. As the storyline continues, the exhibition will focus on Magna Carta’s rediscovery in the 17th century, when English jurists, especially Sir Edward Coke, made Magna Carta into the fundamental source of constitutional guarantees of individual liberties; Magna Carta’s adoption and interpretation in Colonial America; and Magna Carta’s influence on the creation of American written constitutions.

The exhibition will show the relevance of Magna Carta by tracing important areas of constitutional jurisprudence from their medieval origins through present-day litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court. A small section will highlight the interpretation of Magna Carta in art, music, drama and cultural commemorations.

Highlights of the items on display include:

  • A miniature manuscript of the Statutes of England from the 14th century – one of the Law Library of Congress’s most treasured books.
  • “The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England” (1681) by Edward Coke, one of the most important jurists in the history of English law. The work was one of the basic textbooks from which young lawyers learned the law in the 17th and 18th centuries and contains a commentary on Magna Carta that became enormously influential in Great Britain and America.
  • George Washington's annotated copy of the Committee of Style’s draft of the U.S. Constitution from Sept. 12, 1787, which is the core document for the exploration of the antecedents of some critical phrases and principles in the U. S. Constitution. Few critical alterations were made to the Committee of Style's draft before it was signed by the delegates in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787.
  • A first-edition copy of the “Federalist,” also known as the “Federalist Papers,” written for the most part as a series of newspaper articles by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay during the debate that led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

“Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” has been organized by the Library of Congress in partnership with Lincoln Cathedral, which is allowing Magna Carta to travel to three venues in the United States. The document first appeared in an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from July through September. Currently, it is on exhibit at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts through Nov. 2.

The Library’s exhibition is made possible by The Federalist Society and 1st Financial Bank USA. Additional support comes from The Friends of the Law Library of Congress, BP America, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, White & Case LLP, The Burton Foundation for Legal Achievement, and other donors, as well as contributions received from Thomson Reuters, William S. Hein & Co., Inc., and Brill|Nijhoff Publishers through the Friends of the Law Library. The Library also acknowledges the support and assistance provided by the British Council.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, the Library will host a symposium “Conversations on the Enduring Legacy of the Great Charter,” to coincide with the exhibition. Speakers from academia, the legal and judicial fields and the media will discuss the links between the principles of Magna Carta and issues in society today. The sessions will focus on the impact of Magna Carta on the United States and how this seminal legal document informs contemporary legal and political thought. Further details will be announced later.

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PR 14-170
ISSN 0731-3527