From the Magna Carta to the American Declaration of Independence

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  • 0:01 Democracy: A Wonderful Thing!
  • 0:47 The Magna Carta
  • 2:32 The Glorious Revolution
  • 4:35 The Declaration of…
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will trace the legacy of democratic ideals from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence. We will highlight the key developments of democracy throughout the Medieval period and into the modern age.

Democracy: A Wonderful Thing!

Democracy is a wonderful thing. It allows people to choose their leaders. In the United States, if the people don't approve of the way the president is running the county, they have the opportunity every four years to vote him out of office and vote someone else in. Similarly, the people have the opportunity to elect members of Congress every two years. In the United States it's worked well for the past 200-plus years. But how did our democratic system come to be? What about the history of democracy itself? How did it start, and what were some highlights in its development? That is what we will be learning in this lesson. Let's begin!

The Magna Carta

Most experts attribute the origin of modern democracy to the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks had a remarkably advanced civilization for their time. They lived in independent city-states, and many of the city-states had democratic systems in place where leaders were elected and important decisions were settled by voting.

But for the purposes of this lesson, we are going to trace democracy from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence. So what was the Magna Carta? The Magna Carta was a charter signed in 1215 by English King John granting specific liberties to his subjects. Basically, what happened was that a group of English barons, which were noblemen, stood up to King John and demanded that his authority exist within the rule of law. This meant the king could not punish his subjects unjustly or act arbitrarily outside the law.

King John reluctantly signed the charter in order to maintain power. It was signed at Runnymede, along the bank of the River Thames. The Magna Carta was a super important document because it was the first time the English people stepped up to limit the king's power and assert their rights. Consequently, the Magna Carta is commonly seen as a foundational document. It is the inspiration behind the British constitution, and it even proved to inspire America's 'Founding Fathers' in their quest for independence.

The Glorious Revolution

Another important development in the history of democracy happened in 1688. In that year, the Glorious Revolution took place. The Glorious Revolution resulted in the overthrow of King James II and the ascension of William of Orange to the throne. King James' pro-Catholic policies greatly concerned many Protestant members of Parliament, so they basically invited a Dutch Protestant to come over to England and take over their country! Granted, William was a royal and had ties to the English Crown.

This event is called the 'Glorious' Revolution because William and his wife, Mary, were very popular and loved by the English people. The Glorious Revolution also resulted in the English Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1689. The Bill of Rights set forth limits on the power of the king and outlined the rights of Parliament.

Following the Glorious Revolution, the English monarchy became more and more defined in terms of what powers it had and didn't have. Increasingly, Parliament was playing a larger role. Intellectuals, like John Locke, were extremely influential in shaping English politics toward democratic ends. John Locke was a philosopher who has been called the 'Father of Classical Liberalism.'

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