New Book – Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom’s Symbol Over A Millennium

Blurb: The story of Magna Carta is the essential prologue to the story of Australian democracy. When William Wentworth demanded that our convict stain must not rob us of the ‘British right’ to self-government, he was making a conscious and effective appeal to centuries of conflict and collective memory. More than this, he was directly emulating the barons of 1215, who themselves had claimed liberties based on a semi-mythical Anglo-Saxon past. This is the tale of the importance of history and culture in securing rights, and how the Great Charter is an indelible symbol of freedom.

A talented young historian, Gorman provides a remarkably accessible, yet carefully researched, overview of the famous charter’s many lives. As in any book of great scope, it contains many things to discuss and some things to disagree with; but beneath its understated, at times frankly colloquial, manner lie insights that make it a joy to read.

Henry Ergas, The AUSTRalian 12/3/2021

Dr. Zachary Gorman’s new book Summoning Magna Carta looks at the Great Charter’s history as an answer to fundamental questions: Where do we find our freedom? How do we protect the rights of the individual against the attacks and encroachments of the state, from tyranny, and from anarchy?

The Great Charter’s answer is that freedom can be found in history and custom, in the time-honoured wisdom of our forebears. Magna Carta was and is a powerful symbol of our collective past, which over the centuries has been repeatedly invoked to demand freedom in the present. It is an incredibly successful example of the Burkean idea of grounding liberty in tangible lived experience, rather than in abstract theory.

History has taught us that each generation has to fight for its freedom. As former US president Ronald Reagan put it:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

This fragility makes history and custom so important, because in establishing recognised societal norms they offer a way to fortify our freedom. If nations appreciate what has gone into winning liberty they are more likely to recognise its value and protect it from even nascent threats. The roots of successful political institutions—such as those Australians inherited from our British past—grow deep, and this is precisely what allows them to weather storms.

The difference between the success of the American Revolution and the promethean destruction of the French, is that one built on an existing foundation and the other tried to rebuild society from the ground up. Once the French had thrown out all existing anchors to the past, they found they were constructing their tower of liberty on a base of sand. In contrast, the story of Magna Carta is the story of an historical icon constantly being summoned to demand ever-expanding concepts of justice and liberty, growing from the firm basis of precedents found in the past.

At a time when appeals to abstract rights would have been dismissed out of hand, the Barons demanded that King John re-establish the laws of Edward the Confessor and what were thought to be ancient customary rights. They wanted the right to only be levied customary taxes at customary levels, customary justice and a fair interpretation of customary feudal duties, and an ancient right to be consulted on important matters. In turn the Charter would be reinvented by Englishmen of the Stuart era to justify parliamentary supremacy, the Americans to claim no taxation without representation, and the Australians who insisted that the convict stain did not deny them their British birthright. Indeed, the book reveals for the first time how Magna Carta was directly involved in the advent of Australian democracy.

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