An 800th Birthday for Property Rights

On Monday, June 15, historians across the world will celebrate eight centuries of a dusty old document. So, what does that mean to you, a modern real estate professional? Everything.

The King’s Great Seal, which was attached to the Magna Carta as proof of his assent to the agreement (Credit: British Library).

The King’s Great Seal, which was attached to the Magna Carta as proof of his assent to the agreement (Credit: British Library).

The Magna Carta was the first agreement in the modern age to guarantee certain rights to individuals and ensure that leaders obey laws. The tyrannical King John, who ruled England from 1199 to 1216, exhausted and frustrated the landowners of his kingdom to the breaking point. He’d levied massive taxes, known as scutage, to pay for his costly foreign wars. When folks didn’t pay, he’d seize their property or lock them up. By 1215, the so-called “rebel barons” had had enough. They renounced their allegiance to the king and captured London in May. At that point, the king had no recourse but to negotiate, finally agreeing to meet them at Runnymede, on the River Thames in the south of England, in June of that year. After some negotiating, King John granted the Charter of Liberties, which became known as Magna Carta, at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Though many provisions were eventually stripped and the document was reissued several times throughout the coming century, the main idea of individual rights and liberties reverberated for centuries, especially those contained in this passage (emphasis mine):

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

This sentence is often cited as the inspiration for constitutions and declarations of rights around the world. Most importantly for real estate professionals in the United States, it’s perhaps the oldest source for the fifth amendment of our nation’s Bill of Rights:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Of course, it would take a while for both England and the United States to extend said rights beyond landowning elites, but the notion did set a standard for property rights that had not been officially expressed in the modern world. Sometimes the wheels of justice and human rights turn slowly, and in this case we’re talking centuries.

I had assumed that back when NAR was founded, around a century ago, property rights were still a major concern. But after talking to Managing Director of NAR’s Information Services, Frederik Heller, I learned that Americans had a moment of security—albeit brief—about the issue of property rights around the turn of the century.

“Property rights weren’t seen as being threatened or limited in the ways they are now, so I think it just wasn’t a major concern,” Heller says. “That changed pretty quickly, though. Beginning in the 1910s, the right to own property popped up in the National Real Estate Journal more and more often, as zoning ordinances took hold to put limits on what owners could and couldn’t do with their land. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, property taxes became popular ways for municipalities to generate income.”

And though the idea of preserving the right of property ownership wasn’t mentioned as one of the goals of NAR in its Constitution and Bylaws until 1961, the idea was securely planted in the preamble of the Code of Ethics, written in 1924. It was the first time NAR officially identified property rights as an idea for REALTORS® to uphold & protect:

Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization…

As we all well know, the issue of preserving property rights is now key to a number of important initiatives at NAR. So, as members of an association that clearly sees the importance of property ownership, I hope you’ll join me in a salute to one of the most famous documents in history, and one that at least started us down a path toward the relatively fair and free society we enjoy today. Happy birthday, Magna Carta. You don’t look a year over 350 to me.

Learn more and watch an animated video about the story behind the Magna Carta at the British Library’s website.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook

  1. Muriel Lawty

    Thank you 🙂