Legal History

Winston Churchill wanted to give rare Magna Carta manuscript to US, documents show

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In this 1939 photo, British ambassador Philip Henry Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian (right), is passing the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta over to Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish in an official ceremony. It was taken to the United States for safekeeping at Fort Knox in Kentucky during World War II. It was repatriated after the end of the war. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Great Britain’s prime minister and other officials wanted to give the U.S. a rare historic manuscript of the Magna Carta during World War II, as a thank-you for America’s anticipated help during the war effort.

However, the would-be donation discussed by Winston Churchill in documents unearthed less than a decade ago never occurred, likely due at least in part to the fact that the Magna Carta the group wanted to hand over didn’t belong to the government and the need for an act of Parliament to complete the transaction, reports the Guardian.

The charter is valued by Americans as well as those who reside in the United Kingdom, because it underlies the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the article notes. Sealed in 1215 by England’s King John, the Magna Carta established the basis for the rule of law by limiting the king’s powers over the land-owning aristocracy.

The unconsumated plan to gift the manuscript to the U.S. was revealed by the British Library on the eve of a Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition honoring the Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, which is scheduled to kick off Friday. In addition to Magna Carta manuscripts, documents in which Churchill’s group discussed the possible gift and various historic relics, it will also include a copy of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights.

Sponors include Linklaters, which shows a copy of the Magna Carta and provides a translation on the law firm’s website, and White and Case, which made the loan of the U.S. documents to the British Library possible.

The BBC News, the Daily Mail, the Independent and the Telegraph also have stories.

The exhibit is described as “rich and authoritative” by the Telegraph. For those who wish to experience the Magna Carta on everyday items in their lives, however, retailers are offering a wide range of souvenirs including “rulers of law”; t-shirts, onesies and dog coats featuring the slogan “I (heart symbol) Magna Carta”; and a baby pacifier that incudes a miniature replica of the fine print of the document, the Smithsonian reports. The pacifier is particularly appropriate, the article notes, because the Magna Carta did not include a right of free speech.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “800th anniversary of Magna Carta will be heralded with celebrations of the rule of law”

ABA Journal: “ABA initiatives raise public awareness about the Magna Carta’s significance” “Magna Carta should inspire lawyers to rise above partisanship, solve problems, chief justice says” “Another Magna Carta is found”

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