June 15, 1215, should be remembered by Americans because it marks the first great step and the subsequent development of the system of representative government, constitutionalism, and the principles of individual liberty, all of which became more perfectly expressed in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. Here’s the story:
English kings ruled oppressively during the early Middle Ages. Neither the nobles nor the people had any voice in the affairs of state. The nobles despised the absolute rule of the king while the common people resented the high taxes. The clergy, the nobles, and the middle class concluded that the only way they could fix the problem was by banding together. When one of their worst Kings, John, came to the throne, they decided to act.
John was dishonest, treacherous, and hated by all classes. The King seemed to be at war with everyone: he overtaxed the common people, quarreled with his vassals, and fought with the Pope. John also engaged in a war with the king of France in which he lost many English possessions. The people, suffering from tyranny and oppressive taxes, refused to help John.
With this long history of transgressions, John added this one, probably his worst, above them all; he imprisoned his liberty loving subjects who objected to his arbitrary rule – without trial! Many of these poor souls rotted in filthy dungeons for years. —– Pause for a moment here: think about what it cost our forefathers to secure for us the right of trial by jury.
The nobles had enough! They decided their only option was to compel John to restore their liberties. On this day, June 15, 1215, armed barons gathered together at Runnymede, and forced King John to sign the Magna Charta, the Great Charter. It was a long document setting forth limitations on arbitrary power, drafted by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, and a committee of noblemen.
Here’s the Great Charter in a nutshell:
First, it assured the freedom of the church; Second, the feudal rights and privileges of the nobility were respected; Third, it forbade the king from extorting money from the people in the form of fines, taxes, or any other tricky measures, without first consulting the barons; Fourth, the king couldn’t arbitrarily toss people in prison, they were to receive a speedy trial by a jury; Fifth, the accused couldn’t be tried or punished more than once for the same offense; Sixth, it prohibited the king from taking a freeman’s property or banish him without just cause; Seventh, the king was forced to allow the nobles to appoint a committee to keep an eye on him and punish him if he violated the charter.
Trial by jury is one of the outstanding features of this charter. This is what led Sir William Blackstone to predict immortality for the British Constitution:
“Greece fell, Rome fell, Venice fell; the Republics of modern times, that hovered around classic Italy, fell; but England will endure; for trial by jury will make the liberties of Englishmen eternal.”
Tyrants hate restraints. And, as you can guess, John, and his successor, Henry the 3rd, violated the charter, thus causing civil wars and a constitutional crisis. But these upheavals led to the establishment of the Parliament, in 1295, in which a system of representation was set up.
The first steps in the right direction toward constitutional liberty were now taken. The Magna Charta was a ground breaking precedent. Here’s what followed:
- Representative Government: Simon’s Parliament assembled in 1265 – that’s where the first House of Commons sat; Edward’s Parliament, called the Model Parliament, sat in 1295.
- Liberty Based Charters: The Petition of Right (1626); The Habeas Corpus Act (1679); The English Bill of Rights (1689).
- The Common Law: The above charters declared the principles, but it was the Common Law that expounded them. One scholar says of the common law,
“That law was the growth of many centuries; its maxims were those of a sturdy and independent race of men, who were accustomed in an unusual degree to freedom of thought and action, and to a share in the administration of public affairs. So far as they declared individual rights, they were a part of the constitution of the realm, and of that “law of the land” the benefit of which was promised by the charter of King John to every freeman. They were modified and improved from age to age, by changes in the habits of thought and action among the people, by modifications in the civil and political state, by the vicissitudes of public affairs, by judicial decisions, and by statutes. The colonists claimed that this code of law accompanied them, as a standard of right and of protection in their emigration, and that it remained their law, excepting as in some particulars it was found unsuited to their circumstances in the New World. Relying upon it, they had well known and well defined rules of protection; without it, they were at the mercy of those who ruled, and, whether actually oppressed or not, were without freedom.”
Let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this article. These dates and charters should be remembered by Americans because they mark the first great steps and the subsequent developments of the system of representative government, constitutionalism, and the principles of individual liberty, all of which became more perfectly expressed in the U.S. Constitution and its’ amendments.
The Story of the First Stars and Stripes – By Daniel Sheridan
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress authorizes the “stars and stripes” flag for the new United States.
On the right of the provided photo is the British Union Jack with the red cross of St. George and the Scottish white cross of St. Andrew. The flag on the left was used by General George Washington at Cambridge in January, 1776.
The flag in the middle, our “stars and stripes,” was adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. The British Union was exchanged for a Union of 13 States, represented by white stars on a blue background. Below this flag is the Washington family coat of arms with a Latin phrase meaning, “The event justifies the deed.”
The “Stars and Stripes” now represented the United States in their struggle for freedom. It was first flown on August 6, 1777. The story behind this event illustrates what America is about – freedom, courage, and ingenuity. Here’s what happened:
On August 3, 1777, British Colonel St. Leger, leading an expedition consisting of Loyalists and Indians, laid siege to Fort Stanwix, a log fortification held by two New York Regiments. The American Patriot, General Herkimer, knowing the Americans couldn’t withstand a siege for long, raised a militia of 800 men and went to the aid of his fellow patriots.
Herkimer and his band, however, were ambushed Near Oriskany, New York, by the Mohawk chieftain, Joseph Brant. The battle was one of the most gruesome of the war as the Militia, Royalists, and Mohawks became so intermingled that the battle turned into hand to hand combat, men wrestling with bayonet, hatchet, and hunting knife in hand. Brave men fell in the forest, as one writer put it, “with their left hands clenched in each other’s hair, their right grasping, in a grip of death, the knife plunged in each other’s bosom.” General Herkimer, as he lay dying from a mortal wound, continued to encourage and order his men until his last breath.
The battle still raging, men from the American garrison executed a daring move which successfully drove the enemy away. The Patriots, having heard of Herkimer’s fate, returned to the fort with prisoners, spoils of war, and five enemy flags.
The garrison didn’t have a flag when the battle began, but after returning from their victory they improvised one on the spot with the materials at hand. The white stripes were made of cut-up shirts, the red of pieces of scarlet cloth sewed together, and the blue background for the stars was made from a coat. Historian John Fiske describes the scene:
“This rude flag, hastily extemporized out of a white shirt, an old blue jacket, and some strips of red cloth from the petticoat of a soldier’s wife, was the first American flag with stars and stripes that was ever hoisted, and it was first flung to the breeze on the memorable day of Oriskany, August 6, 1777.”
“It was the first time that a captured banner floated under the stars and stripes.”
That’s the origin of the American flag: courage, ingenuity, and the principles of liberty which are the basis of our American Republic. Patriotism is devotion to Principles. A Patriot knows the Principles of Freedom, promotes them, and defends them. Thomas Jefferson described this quality as “the virtue, intelligence and patriotism of the people.”