… or at least he tried to butcher them. On this day 800 years ago, King John was compelled to sign Magna Charta, formally accepting a limit to his prerogative to ravage everything in England. But the ink on his signature was barely dry before he brought in foreign forces and tried to wipe out the barons who had compelled him to sign the Charta. The English almost lost their newly-recognized rights within months of the signing because they were not sufficiently suspicious of the King. As David Hume noted in his magisterial History of England, “The ravenous and barbarous mercenaries, incited by a cruel and enraged prince, were let loose against the estates, tenants, manors, houses, parks of the barons, and spread devastation over the face of the kingdom. Nothing was to be seen but the flames of villages and castles reduced to ashes, the consternation and misery of the inhabitants, tortures exercised by the soldiery to make them reveal their concealed treasures…”
Few people recall that Pope Innocent speedily sought to annul the charter and formally absolved King John of any obligation to obey Magna Charta. English liberties received a boost from the death of King John less than a year after Runnymede.
The real lesson of Magna Charta is that solemn pledges do not make tyrants trustworthy. Similarly, American presidents are required to pledge upon taking office that “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully… preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At this point, that oath does little more than spur cheers from high school civics teachers. It has been more than 40 years since any president paid a serious price for trampling the law. And presidents have a prerogative to trample constitutional rights as long as they periodically proclaim their devotion to democracy.