National Archives translates the Magna Carta into English for the 21st century

WASHINGTON — To most Americans, England’s “Magna Carta,” or “Great Charter,” is a dead-tree document from the 13th century. Written in medieval Latin and dealing with arguments between long-dead kings and their nobles, the document is impenetrable.

On Friday, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., brought it into the 21st century with a new interactive exhibit.

Why should Americans care about this charter?

Read up on the founding fathers and the American Revolution.

“If you read the early writings of Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams, and Madison, many times they say, it’s because of the Magna Carta that we’re doing this (rebelling against England),” says David M. Rubenstein, who loaned the document to the National Archives. He is the co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group.

The Magna Carta was born out of dispute. In 1215, the English nobility at odds with King John (known to many as the Prince John of the Robin Hood legends) had him sign the Magna Carta, which limited the powers of the monarchy. The document included “the right to habeas corpus, that punishment was proportionate to the crime involved, (and) no taxation without representation,” says Rubinstein. On display is the charter of 1297 signed by Edward I, John’s grandson, which is viewed as a foundation for English law.

The new display case is found in the west Rotunda gallery of the National Archives. The Magna Carta is flanked by two interactive computer terminals where, by touching a screen, visitors can read the document in English, discover how it applies to American legal history, and see who has cited the importance of the document.

Rubenstein first visited Washington on a class trip in 8th grade and is passionate about American history. He recently donated $7.5 million to the repair of the Washington Monument after earthquake damage. He bought the document at a Sotheby’s auction from millionaire Ross Perot. The original owners had possessed it for 500 years but had to sell it to pay taxes.

“In recent years I’ve bought some other documents that are early American historical documents that are important in American history, but many of these documents, to me, are based in Magna Carta principles,” says Rubinstein.



The National Archives on the Magna Carta

VIDEO: the encasement of the Magna Carta