JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — What are you thankful for? The question followed me the entire, extended weekend, as I struggled to write this article. It followed me as I made my way through the historic sites of Virginia.
The air was unseasonably warm for November, as I walked through the remnants of Jamestown, Va. – America’s first permanent English colony. The ground crunched beneath my feet as my shoes pressed into sand, dirt and stone that had seen the likes of such historical figures as John Smith, John Rolfe and Pocahontas.
As I weaved my way between brick foundations which had once been homes, my eyes caught sight of an oak tree that seemed strangely out of place. It was a live oak, dedicated June 15, 1965 to mark the 750th Anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.
It seemed strange that a tree would be planted at Jamestown to honor a document written in a country which unsuccessfully tried to squash our own pursuit of freedom. However, during the American Revolution, the Magna Carta acted as both an inspiration and a justification for the defense of liberty.
It was June 15, 1215 in a field at Runnymeade, England when King John pressed his seal into a document that would change the world forever. Written by a group of rebellious barons, the document sought to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king.
“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land,” the document stated. “To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
Similarly, the colonists, who had etched their mark into America from humble beginnings, believed and demanded the same rights as Englishmen. These rights, which were guaranteed in the Magna Carta, were later drafted into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Centuries later, the Magna Carta is still regarded as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy.
“The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1941 Inaugural address. “It was written in the Magna Carta.”
The Magna Carta was more than just our history, I thought as I enjoyed the shade the oak provided. It could not be left to wither and turn to dust in the wind, especially during a month when people began looking into the things they were thankful for. This was more than our history – it was our identity. For a mere 180 years after Jamestown was founded in 1607, and some 300 miles north, a group of men came together inside the State House at Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.
From those articles, through a series of discussions and debates, an entirely new government was formed – with the Constitution as its guiding light.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” the document states in its opening lines.
While some of its framers regarded the Constitution as far from perfect, they did recognize the importance of its existence – if not the effect it would have on the world and generations to come.
“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a speech he wished to give prior to the signing of the Constitution’s final draft. “In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us…”
An imperfect document for an imperfect world; but, from its pages came the birth of a nation that would idealize the principles of a democratic society. As I moved on from the oak tree, I realized what I was most thankful for this holiday season.
I was thankful for liberty. I was thankful for freedom. I was thankful for the sacrifices made by countless people throughout hundreds of years to lead us to the point where I could walk freely across the land and appreciate the rich history behind it. I was thankful for those who came before me who contributed to the shaping of this nation.
But, most importantly, I was thankful for America.