Runnymede, Waterloo, and Charleston

There was cause for celebration this week. It was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, where a king was told he was not above the law, and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, where a tyrant was informed that he could tyrannize no longer.

Unfortunately, the celebration had to end because a man decided to go into a house of God and turn it into a house of slaughter in the name of racial supremacy of the white variety. He has been caught, has confessed, and has been forgiven by many of the victims’ families, though he should still answer with his life for the wanton taking of the lives of others.

But there is a continuous thread between these events, however. Let me walk you through it.

The Magna Carta was not really a wondrous charter of liberties, by the standards of today. It is filled with minutia about things like fish traps, contains very little high-minded rhetoric, and mostly consists of “And the king doesn’t get to tell the nobles what to do in the following instances.” However, it also established a right to jury trials for the common man and regularized the administration of justice, thereby making the rule of law as we know it possible.

How so, you may ask? To begin with, it is much more difficult to bribe multiple jurors than one judge, and if a man must be tried before losing his liberty, then charges must be brought against him that can be sustained, thereby severely limiting the ability of the powerful to have their way with the powerless. As to the second, by fixing court locations, everyone knew where and when court was in session, which meant that a powerful man could not attempt to see to it that the court stayed one step ahead of his opponent until the latter ran out of the wherewithal to change the court. Most crucially, these established restrictions on what people could and could not do to each other that were not tied to feudal relations or the power balance.

While this is a largely symbolic thing, as King John, the English monarch forced to sign the document, got it abrogated shortly afterward, it has forever after been a touchstone of politics wherever English is spoken.

Waterloo is more complicated, and is almost more symbolic than the Magna Carta. It was the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who spread the sword and the torch across Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow, attempting to establish French hegemony over the continent (despite actually being Corsican) and, by extension, his own. A dictator of the old school, his opposition was comprised of men as autocratic as he and the only really powerful nation where law was king, rather than the king being law–Britain, the nation that the man himself said was the most constant of his enemies. While it was the autocrats who ensured his initial fall at Leipzig two years before Waterloo, it was Britain who sustained the war in Spain and the naval blockade that drained France of so much blood and treasure and forced Napoleon to invade Russia and go to his catastrophic defeat there, a defeat that set him up for Leipzig. It should also be noted that Napoleon attempted to break the Haitian slave rebellion and put the rebels back in chains, and failed due to yellow fever and Haitian resistance, an event of some relevancy to Charleston.

And, finally, Charleston. An event that tells us that we have a long way to go, seeing as guys like Dylan Roof still exist. An event that also tells us that we’ve come a long way, since it was local authorities that caught him and charged him, and his family’s basically disowned him. A hundred years ago, no one would’ve touched the guy, and you can bet your bottom dollar that none of his victims would’ve been a state senator. Charleston is a tragedy, never doubt it. But that nearly all of society condemns it, and that Dylan Roof had to act alone or not at all…that is a sign that the rule of law is still grinding forward, more fully extending its protection to all people, regardless of color, creed, or class.

Some things are getting worse. Some are getting better. Over the grand course of history, this is one of the things that is getting better.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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