Magna Carta in the Age of Enlightenment, Revolution, and Empire: Rethinking Constitutional History on the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

AHA Session 50
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Paul Halliday, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta, often called the “great charter of liberties”, sealed by King John on the river Thames at Runnymede. This panel commemorates the anniversary of Magna Carta, long considered a foundational document of constitutional history in Britain and beyond, by reexamining the uses of Magna Carta in British and American debates about constitutions in the late eighteenth century. During this period, movements for political reform, the expansion of empire, and republican revolutions generated new theories and practices of constitutional government, including a new emphasis on written constitutions, which had a lasting impact on modern politics in Britain, north America and around the world. The panel explores how Magna Carta functioned as a reference point and symbolic resource in movements for constitutional renovation in the age of revolution and empire.  The panel brings together scholars of legal, political and imperial history in the Anglo-phone world. Linda Colley will examine the status of Magna Carta as an iconic text that served multiple, often contradictory purposes, in British and international politics.  She considers what the increasingly frequent invocations of Magna Carta in the later eighteenth century tell us about changing notions of ‘political writing-ness and iconic texts’. Daniel Hulsebosch considers the widespread influence in the politics of the Atlantic world of a particular clause in Magna Carta, the guarantee of safe conduct to “merchant aliens” or aliens. Comparing the inclusion of similar clauses in post-revolutionary constitutions in north America and beyond, he suggests how contemporaries saw the protection of “merchant aliens” as a critical aspect of modern sociability as well as a legal grounding for “commercial-fiscal” states. Theories of constitutional governance were not restricted to republican or national projects in this period, but were also a critical feature of imperial state-building. Robert Travers considers how the British imperial state in India deployed constitutionalist theories of politics, including ideas of written constitutions, to justify itself as a rule of law. Here too Magna Carta became a touchstone in schemes for constitutional government. Travers examines Edmund Burke’s idea of a using parliamentary legislation to construct a new ‘Magna Charta of Hindostan’, supplanting the ‘despotism’ of the East India Company, and places this in the wider context of contested articulations of a constitutional structure for the British empire in India.  The panel will consist of three papers, and a comment on the papers by Paul Halliday. Beyond the particular focus on the history of Magna Carta, the panel hopes to contribute to broader debates in modern constitutional history, by engaging themes including the emergence of written constitutions, the international spread of constitutional ideas, and the uses of constitutions in modern empires.

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