The history of animal welfare and animal rights is compelling because we seem to continuously find sympathetic qualities in other animals that we never suspected before – and that, in turn, is because we begin from zero, assuming they have neither rights nor interests nor any signal abilities to compare with our own. The history of the rights of humankind is no less compelling, because we also begin with none.
One landmark is the Charter of Liberties, a written declaration issued by Henry I of England, the son of William the Conqueror, in 1100. It was directed at the abuses of his brother and predecessor, William II, including the taxation of barons, who were apt always to feel overtaxed (not unlike the way their serfs were apt to feel exploited). It also included the stipulation that if the widow of a baron or earl wished to remarry, “I shall abide by the wishes of her close relatives, (but) I will not allow her to marry one of my enemies.” From such acorns oaks one day grow.
The Charter of Liberties was mostly ignored by Henry’s successors. By 1215, King John was on the throne, ruling by force and decree, which did not trouble his barons so much as his raising taxes on them and their debts to him. They organized resistance in the north and east of England, and demanded John respect the Charter of Liberties. (One, Robert FitzWalter, also complained John had tried to rape his daughter.)
The barons raised troops. The king recruited French mercenaries. The rebels seized London. The king agreed to peace talks. They met in June on neutral ground at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames. On June 15, they signed a compact that would come to be known as the Magna Carta, or the great charter, protecting the barons and others from arbitrary imprisonment, promising swift justice in courts of law and limiting the taxation of nobles without their consent. It also recognized some rights even of serfs. And it created a council of barons to ensure the king adhered to the charter on pain of having his castles and lands seized. The crown had ceded the right of resistance to the nobles.
The peace did not hold, aided not at all by Pope Innocent III, to whom John appealed for help. The pope called the charter shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust, because the king, who ruled by divine grace in the church’s view, had been forced to accept it from men; and said the king would be excommunicated if he followed it. Yet the Magna Carta survived over the longer haul and was reissued by John’s grandson, King Edward I, in 1297 – in return for a new tax. That version is still a ghostly part of the statutes of the United Kingdom.
The Magna Carta was woven into medieval English law (over continuing papal objections) and further refined to reflect the rights of all men (“of whatever estate or condition,” free or not) and their protections in due process of law. It was used as a shield against kings, and that, more than its particulars, is what endured in law: the example it set of the consent of the governed, even if it was granted rather than seized, as Tom Paine complained. Still, many leaders of the American colonists believed the Magna Carta was the embodiment of the common law that bound them. They would come to fight against the crown and, critically, for what they believed the Magna Carta meant – and then enshrine it in the Fifth and Sixth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.