In the age of big government, an 800-year-old piece of parchment may yield a surprising amount of guidance in examining the place that individual rights ought to have in society. As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer describes it, “The Magna Carta is the basis, it is the root of the kinds of freedom, and democracy, and equal dignity that underlie our modern civilization.” In fact, the Magna Carta has influenced individuals and governments throughout history, from its conception even to the present day. And the complex history of this ancient document is easier to access than ever before, thanks to the Adam Smith Institute.
“Magna Carta is the most important document in world history, with an almost mystical power to change human events,” said Dr. Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute. “It curbed the power of those in authority and asserted the rights of individuals. It is a banner of liberty, at the root of our modern civilization and democracy. But today our freedoms are under threat. It is time to return to the ‘great charter’—and invoke its power.”
With support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Adam Smith Institute has teamed up with award-winning documentary makers WAG TV to produce two 50-minute documentaries on the charter and its relevance today, featuring interviews with US and UK supreme court justices, prominent historians, policy commentators from both sides of the Atlantic, and the librarians who conserve the documents themselves. In addition to being informative and entertaining, the documentaries are also meant to be an engaging, immersive experience.
“We hope this pair of documentaries will be seen on TV around the world, and will crystallize in people’s minds that our freedoms are under threat and that it is time we resurrected the forgotten principles of freedom,” continued Butler. To expand the project to the US, Europe, Latin America, India, and beyond, the Adam Smith Institute is in the process of translating the documentaries and accompanying educational materials.
The documentaries have been split into short teaching modules, from three to seven minutes in length, to help teachers introduce the key historical and citizenship questions raised by Magna Carta. This allows students to assess for themselves if and how the principles enshrined in this ancient document are relevant to our lives today.
“We also hope that the many teaching modules that have been created from the documentaries will penetrate as deeply into schools in other countries as they have in the UK, where they were created,” Butler expanded. “Together with our teaching guides, we think both students and their teachers will come to realize the relevance and importance of Magna Carta, not just in the past but today.”
The documentaries won the Best International Documentary award at the 2017 Anthem Film Festival. For teachers, the website includes free Magna Carta lesson plans with resources and activities, and video clips from the award-winning documentary series. The Adam Smith Institute will even offer daylong seminars on Magna Carta to UK secondary schools, featuring experts who will explore the relevance of the document with students. Students can read through overviews of the document and its significance today.
"Most people don't have a clue what Magna Carta is, let alone why it matters to them today," said Sam Bowman, executive director of the Adam Smith Institute. "But it's one of the founding documents of liberty across the world, as important as the Declaration of Independence in making the world as prosperous and free as it is today. I'm so proud that this film makes it clear to a modern audience what happened 800 years ago and why the rights of individual liberty they take for granted today, and does so in such an entertaining, engaging way."
While this marks the Adam Smith Institute’s first major documentary film project, it plans to expand on its success: “Apart from a short documentary on Hayek made after his death in 1992, this is the Adam Smith Institute’s first exercise in making broadcast-quality TV documentaries and supporting educational materials,” concluded Butler. “It will not be our last: we are already planning a six-part documentary on the real history of communism, with moving commentaries by some of its victims—something to remind those millennials who support the likes of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, but have never heard of Mao or Pol Pot, of the inhuman nightmare that their kind of socialism leads to.”
Learn more about Secrets of the Magna Carta
Access the educational teaching modules here.