Written Constitutions and the Reimagining of Magna Carta

Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Linda Colley, Princeton University
One of the marked characteristics of Magna Carta was that, increasingly, few people seem to have bothered to read it carefully or sought to understand it. Consequently, this document was increasingly able to serve multiple, even contradictory political purposes. In the wake of the advent of new written constitutions after 1776, Magna Carta was often consciously invoked within Britain as a precursor of, and exemplar for such political instruments, and such claims both operated as incitements to further constitutional activism, and were deployed as a rationale for deferring it. Overseas - and not merely in the empire - Magna Carta was often invoked so as to legitimise and embellish British interventions. But opponents also employed it as a touchstone for challenging and castigating the quality of British governance abroad as well as at home. In this paper, Colley examines some of these political reinventions and manipulations of Magna Carta, and considers why they were becoming markedly more common even before the American Revolution. To what extent does the revival of verbal and graphic allusions to Magna Carta that becomes evident in Britain after 1750 suggest a growing interest here - as well as on the other side of the Atlantic - in political writing-ness and iconic texts?
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