A movie about courage in the face of tyranny—and a rousing good time
This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, an important landmark in the development of the English common law. His consent dramatically extorted by defiant barons at Runnymede in June of 1215, King John agreed to limits on the power of the crown.
The spectacle of a proud king bending before the will of his subjects fired the imagination of one the greatest guardians of freedom: Sir Winston S. Churchill. Churchill frequently pointed to Magna Carta as the foundation of the British liberties he strove so mightily to defend. Indeed, the medieval charter retained a remarkable inspirational immediacy for Churchill, who was inclined to trace clear lines of descent through the congested and meandering corridors of history.
As historians are apt to point out, the record of the growth of British constitutionalism is rather more complicated than identifying a series of vital transition points that may be connected together in an uninterrupted stream of progress. Yet this is essentially how Churchill proceeds in his most sustained treatment of the topic in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-1958), finding connections between root and branch that could be discerned clearly mostly in hindsight.
Such reflections, it must be noted, do not mark the first time Churchill’s historiography has been questioned. Even The Second World War (1948-1953) has met with sustained criticism from historians for being incompletely documented, skewed toward self-justification, and selective in its treatments. Much could be said concerning these charges, but one might begin by noting that Churchill’s narrative pursues purposes beyond the merely historical: both the subject and the author necessarily propelled the work into a larger political context. An analogous case can be made for his treatment of Magna Carta and the development of English common law, not only in the History (begun in the 1930s, delayed by the war, and finally published after his second premiership ended), but in the many common law references in his wartime and postwar speeches.
That Churchill was perfectly aware of the scholarly cautions against reading too much into Magna Carta in order to find the source of future political developments is clear from his treatment in the first volume of the History, entitled The Birth of Britain. Several times he delivers the cautions himself, noting that those wishing to discern the future in its clauses will find that
It is entirely lacking in any spacious statement of the principles of democratic government or the rights of man. It is not a declaration of constitutional doctrine, but a practical document to remedy current abuses in the feudal system.
He adds for good measure: “The great watchwords of the future here find no place.”
Nonetheless, Churchill was adamant that here was the sure seed-bed of British constitutionalism and the root of its central, imperishable idea:
Throughout the document it is implied that here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.
Thus it became, “in the process of time,” an “enduring witness that the power of the Crown was not absolute” and “In future ages it was to be used as the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.” The importance Churchill placed upon these prophetic themes of English history finds testimony in their forceful restatement in his 1956 preface to The Birth of Britain.
Yet something else also emerges from that deferred preface: the larger purpose of the work, which was to strengthen the bonds of Anglo-American unity. The conviction that the story told by the History and the cooperation it might encourage could well prove decisive for the future well-being of the world had only become stronger in Churchill’s mind during the period of the book’s delay. “If there was a need for it before,” he wrote,
that has certainly not passed away. For the second time in the present century the British Empire and the United States have stood together facing the perils of war on the largest scale known among men, and since the cannons ceased to fire and the bombs to burst we have become more conscious of our common duty to the human race. Language, law, and the processes by which we have come into being already afforded a unique foundation for drawing together and portraying a concerted task. I thought when I began that such a unity might well notably influence the destiny of the world. Certainly I do not feel that the need for this has diminished in any way in the twenty years that have passed.
In this sense, the History stands as a capstone of Churchill’s efforts to bring about a close association between the children of this common heritage. His desire to establish and maintain a special relationship with the United States during the Second World War are well-known. Behind that effort lay his conviction that the basis of common action was common principle flowing from the same sources. That conviction and the themes to which it gave rise in Churchill’s rhetoric predated Britain’s dire need of American assistance in that war as, indeed, they continued long after the war was won. The emphasis he repeatedly laid upon common traditions and goals regularly incorporated the political and legal documents of the two nations, and Magna Carta was inevitably mentioned.
This had been Churchill’s purpose much earlier, in fact at the time that the Great War was being fought. Speaking on the Fourth of July in 1918, he skillfully negotiated the rhetorical dangers posed by referring to the American colonies’ break from the mother country. He spoke of “a great harmony” existing “between the spirit and the language of the Declaration of Independence and all we are fighting for now.” And, he reasoned, “a similar harmony exists between the principles of the Declaration and all that the British people have wished to stand for, and have in fact achieved at last both here at home and in the self-governing Dominions of the Crown.”
He then proclaimed a complete unity between the political traditions in which common family ties overcame past disagreements. The Declaration, he said, “is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking peoples are founded.”
Addressing the American Bar Association in 1957, Churchill drew out the connections between Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution:
It has often been pointed out that the 5th and 14th Amendments of the American Constitution are an echo of the Magna Carta. . . . I speak, of course, as a layman on legal topics, but I believe that our differences are more apparent than real, and are the result of geographical and other physical conditions rather than any true division of principle.
Thus did Churchill seal the documentary, and principled, bond between the two nations. Whatever differences in particulars may have emerged, they were bound together by their common inheritance.
But Churchill’s references to Magna Carta and common law were not reserved solely for courting Americans. They were also meant to rally his own people to defend their heritage of freedom. Speaking from the political wilderness in 1938 against the misguided policies of the British government, he challenged Britons to be worthy of that heritage:
Have we not an ideology–if we must use this ugly word–of our own in freedom, in a liberal constitution, in democratic and parliamentary government, in Magna Carta and the Petition of Right? Ought we not be ready to make as many sacrifices and exertions for our own broad central theme and cause, as the fanatics of either of these new creeds? Ought we not to produce in defense of Right, champions as bold, missionaries as eager, and if need be, swords as sharp as are at the disposal of the leaders of totalitarian states?
Of course, as he frankly avowed, Churchill welcomed the American entry into the war against Hitler, proclaiming before Congress in December 1941 that the best tidings of all were that America had now also “drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.” For Churchill, Magna Carta and the tradition of Anglo-American constitutionalism in which it played a crucial role were the forge at which freedom’s sword was shaped. The political blessings of that tradition were a heritage not merely to be treasured in peace but also to be defended and propagated in war. He had already referred to America’s willingness to lend Britain material aid as “A New Magna Carta,” and he now rejoiced that its full strength would be brought to bear.
Churchill would again return to these themes and to Magna Carta in the last of his most famous speeches, the 1946 “Sinews of Peace” address delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:
But we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.
At Fulton, Churchill warned of a new threat that must be met with as much energy and determination as that which had just been overcome. The message he conveyed was one of determination and hope for the future, a hope shaped in the long course of years to be the possession, finally, of not only Britain and America, but of the world:
All this means that the people of any country have the right, and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character or form of government under which they dwell; that freedom of speech and thought should reign; that courts of justice, independent of the executive, unbiased by any party, should administer laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities or are consecrated by time and custom. Here are the title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home. Here is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind.
 See Peter Clarke, Mr. Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the “Special Relationship” (Bloomsbury Press, 2012) for an ample discussion of Churchill’s tendency to pursue prophetic themes.
 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 4 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1956), Volume I, p. 255.
 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume I, p. 256.
 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume I, pp. 257 and 254.
 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume I, p. vii.
 “The Third Great Title-Deed of Anglo-American Liberties” July 4, 1918, in Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, edited by Robert Rhodes James, 8 vols. (London: Chelsea House Publishers, 1974), Volume III, p. 2614. This position finds echo in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, where Churchill presents the Americans’ Declaration of Independence from England as in perfect harmony with British political principles. See A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume II, p. 189.
 “Liberty and the Law,” July 31, 1957 in Complete Speeches, Volume VIII, pp. 8682-8683.
 “Arm, and Stand by the Covenant,” May 9, 1938 in Complete Speeches, Volume VI, p. 5959.
 “A Long and Hard War,” December 26, 1941 in Complete Speeches, Volume VI, p. 6539.
 “A New Magna Carta” (Lend-Lease), March 12, 1941 in Complete Speeches, Volume VI, p. 6360.
 “The Sinews of Peace,” March 5, 1946, in Complete Speeches, Volume VII, p. 7288, usually referred to as the “Iron Curtain Address.”