Comparison Of The Circumstances Which Led To The Signing Of The Magna Carta And The Declaration Of Independence
It is well-known that in world history, there are a great many documents that are of significant meanings and value. In British history, Magna Carta is a significant constitutional document which represents the limitation to king’s power. And in American history, the Declaration of Independence marks the founding of the United States. The signing circumstances of these two documents are of both similarities and differences. And the similarities and differences are discussed in terms of three levels: social level, economic level and ideological level, followed by the explanation of their implications.
Firstly, the social structures that contribute to the signing of the two documents are different, but both create context for such things to happen. Since 1066, Britain gradually formed the feudal system in which the king had “feudal incidents” (Turner, 2003, p. 16). According to Turner, King John exploited feudal incidents aggressively, demanding exorbitant sums from baronial heirs and controlling minors’ marriage; therefore, King John’s behavior has something to do with the social structure. And finally, conflicts arose. In addition, the idea of the feudalism is intrinsic in people’s heart. Clohesy’s PowerPoint states that for quite a long time, people believed in the rightness of the hierarchy (2019); therefore, the barons chose to let King John sign a charter rather than overthrow the government. In American colonies, the truncated society was established. Except for the slaves, people are more equal to each other. Therefore, they didn’t accept an absolute foreign power and chose to rebel. Also, since the truncated society created a totally different culture, they formed their own identity; thus, finally, they fought for independence.
The implication of this is that the way the society is organized affects the social conflicts they have and the solutions they use. If the society is organized in a hierarchical way, people tend to use less radical way to limit someone’s power, like the barons in Britain did. They chose to negotiate with the one who had the absolute power and let him sign a charter. If the society is organized in a less hierarchical way, people tend to use more radical way to solve the problem, like the colonists in America did. After some struggles, they finally declared to be independent.
Secondly, as for economic factors, the conflicts in both countries have something to do with the raising taxes. In Britain, according to Turner, “King John’s personal slights and financial extortions against individual barons set off rumblings of wider discontent as early as 1208 and 1209”. The long-lasting financial tension between barons and King John gives rise to the signing of Magna Carta. The same goes for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The conflict in American colonies arose from the British government’s demand for high taxes to pay for the war. Since in the end, the conflict could not be solved, the colonists declared to be independent. To sum up, in both situations, the raising taxes brought people angry, and then, people used their own way to rebel.
The implication of this is that money is important in social life. When one side’s economic interest is infringed, mixed with other factors, it is very likely that conflicts can happen. Money is not only an essential part in human daily life, but also an indication of power. When King John raised taxes, actually, he was wakening the barons’ power. If the barons did not rebel, King John might raise more taxes until the barons no longer had power. The situation in the American colonies follows the same pattern. According to Eicholz, by raising taxes, “Parliament was attempting to streamline and strengthen its control over the empire”. The colonists were afraid that if the situation would not change, the whole economic system in the colonists’ society might be greatly damaged, and the colonists would only be the one who served for Britain instead of having their own identity and power.
Thirdly, judging from ideological perspective, the signing circumstances of these two documents are similar in terms of the people’s raising spirit of rebellion, but different concerning the spread of the spirit. For one thing, the barons and the American colonists share similar consciousness of resistance to the reign at that time. According to Breay and Harrison, a number of barons rebelled because they held great grievance towards King John. Also, Griffin mentions that many American colonists enjoyed using their right to fight against “a tyrannical regime’. For another, the spread of the rebellious spirit in the two countries are different. Clohesy’s PowerPoint states that in Britain, in fact, it was simply the 170 barons who worked together and conveyed the idea of rebellion against the king; however, in America, it was more than 100,000 Americans who bought Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, which spread the idea of fighting against the British government and governing themselves. In a word, in both countries, thought of rebellion exists, which lead to the signing of the two documents, and in the American colonies, the thought of rebellion spread even further.
One implication is that books can be very useful in the spread of thoughts. It is due to Common Sense that the spirit of rebellion can be spread all over the American colonies. Another implication is that ideological change is like a momentum that speeds up the development of the society. If the barons got afraid of the power of the king, the signing of Magna Carta were likely to fail, which could cause King John’s brutal regime to continue. Besides, in the American colonies, if people’s mind were not influenced by Common Sense, it was likely that the Declaration of Independence would not come into being, needless to say the founding of the United States.
In conclusion, the similarities and differences of the signing circumstances of the two documents can be categorized into three aspects: social structure, economic factors and ideological change. Specifically, as for social structure, the social structures in the two countries are different but both contribute to the construction of the context. As for economic factors, the raising taxes cause conflicts in both countries and directly lead to the signing of the documents. And considered from ideological aspect, people’s raising spirit of rebellion accelerates the signing of the two documents. A broader implication is that as for the occurrence of historical events, social structure always creates a context; economic factors provide reasonable causes while ideological change is the momentum. All the three aspects can contribute a lot to the occurrence of historical events.
- Breay, C., Harrison, J. (2014) Magna Carta: an Introduction. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction (Accessed: 2 December 2019).
- Eicholz, H. (2001) Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
- Griffin, P. (2008) ‘What the Declaration of Independence Meant and Means’, Orbis, 52(4), pp. 713-723. doi: 10.1016/j.orbis.2008.07.008.
- Turner, R. (2003) Magna Carta. 1st edn. Harlow: Longman.
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