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Magna Carta Returned to National Archives

After a six-month absence that could have become permanent, a document that helped lay the groundwork for democratic government has returned to the National Archives in Washington. VOA's Susan Logue reports.

In 1215, an assembly of English barons confronted their monarch, King John, and demanded that certain civil rights be recognized, recorded and confirmed with the royal seal. The resulting document, known as the Magna Carta, acknowledged that no man, not even the king, is above the law.

For 20 years the only copy of that historic document in the United States was displayed at the National Archives alongside America's Charters of Freedom: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, says that's appropriate, because the Magna Carta, although written more than 500 years before America declared its independence from Great Britain, had a profound impact on the founding of the United States.

"The Founding Fathers looked to Magna Carta," Weinstein says. "They cited in the Declaration of Independence the freedoms embodied in Magna Carta as those being denied to them by King George III. The rights that the British people sought from King John and his successors are also reflected in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights."

They are reflected in the five amendments that deal with criminal proceedings. Those include the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury, protections against excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment, and the guarantee that "no person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law."

The National Archives didn't own the copy of the Magna Carta it had on display. It was on loan from Texas billionaire and onetime presidential candidate Ross Perot. Last September Perot decided to sell it to the highest bidder.

David Rubenstein, head of a private Washington-based equity firm, was invited to view the document at Sotheby's before the auction. "Someone told me that it was probably going to be bought by somebody who would take it outside the United States, so I quickly decided that I would try to purchase the Magna Carta the next evening."

Fortunately, he was successful.

Rubenstein says it was important to him that the Magna Carta be restored to the National Archives, where everyone can see it. It was, he says, his way of showing appreciation to the country that has been so good to him.

"I came from modest circumstances," says Rubenstein, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. "My parents were blue collar workers, not college educated. I went to college and law school on scholarships. That's the only way I was able to do it."

Rubenstein adds that his parents are proud of what he has done. "They think this is the kind of thing people should do who have financial means to do it, to give back to the community."

Rubenstein's bid was $21 million. The handwritten copy of the Magna Carta, which dates from 1297, is one of only four copies remaining that represent the final of several versions of the document issued during the 13th century.

Ross Perot had purchased it in 1984 from a British family that had owned it for centuries. Perot paid only $1.5 million, which makes purchasing the Magna Carta seem like a good financial investment. But David Rubenstein says that's not why he bought it.

"I've received hundreds and hundreds of letters from people from all over the United States and the world saying they hadn't seen it and now they know they can have a chance to see it with their children. That is the return on my investment."

Rubenstein returned the Magna Carta to the National Archives on Monday, March 3, as a permanent loan. Beginning March 12, the public will once again be able to view it, alongside the historic American documents it inspired.