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Magna Carta Copy Offered As Incentive For U.S. To Get Into World War II


The Magna Carta has a big birthday coming up. That document, establishing the foundation of the modern judicial system, will turn 800 years old on Monday.


At the British Library in London, an exhibition displays the Magna Carta alongside original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights. Both of those documents were inspired by the Magna Carta. A couple of months ago, I visited the British Library for a story on the exhibition with curator Julian Harrison.


JULIAN HARRISON: This is Thomas Jefferson's own handwritten copy of the United States Declaration of Independence.

SHAPIRO: This is some 500 years after Magna Carta.

HARRISON: Absolutely. It's very new, by medieval standards, anyhow.

SHAPIRO: Well, Julian Harrison joins us again to talk about one fascinating detail in the Magna Carta story that did not make that original piece. Welcome back to the program.

HARRISON: Thank you. It's great to speak to you.

SHAPIRO: So set the scene. It is now 1941. World War II is underway, but the U.S. is not yet involved. And how does Magna Carta come into play?

HARRISON: It's a really incredible story. In 1939, the copy of Magna Carta which belonged to Lincoln Cathedral was taken to the New York's World Fair. But after the outbreak of a war, it was stranded in the United States. And then, in March, 1941, the British War Cabinet was debating how to persuade the Americans to join the war effort.

SHAPIRO: And they considered offering this copy of Magna Carta as a bribe?

HARRISON: Essentially, yes. It's the only time in history that one nation has tried to persuade another to join a war on its behalf in return for what one cabinet paper on display in our exhibition describes as an old piece of parchment.

SHAPIRO: This document in the exhibition that you describe has a quite amazing assessment of the British people and the way Americans view them. Would you read this passage? (Reading) We are regarded as...

HARRISON: (Reading) We are regarded as a cold-blooded, calculating people. And our failure to show warmth - to say it with flowers - is perhaps the main reason why American respect for us never quite ripens into a warm, uncalculating friendship, such as they have felt for the French.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I love that.

HARRISON: That's my favorite line of all.

SHAPIRO: Why won't the Americans love us the way they love the French? Maybe if we give them this 800-year-old document, they'll like us a little bit more.

HARRISON: Precisely. It goes on to say (reading) perhaps if we shed our caution, we offer our most precious possession to our best friends, the effect would be incalculable both today and in the future.

SHAPIRO: It says American hearts would be stirred and resistance to full participation in the present struggle will be greatly reduced.

HARRISON: Well, the whole idea was to persuade young American men to lay down their lives for common, shared liberties and freedoms. Of course, what's really interesting about all this is that it doesn't seem that the British Cabinet had actually asked for permission of Lincoln Cathedral, to whom that manuscript of Magna Carta actually belonged.

SHAPIRO: And ultimately, they realized Lincoln Cathedral was not eager to give their copy away.

HARRISON: Unsurprisingly not - they weren't.

SHAPIRO: Well, that copy of Magna Carta was not given away. And there are now two original copies on display at the exhibition at the British Library, along with many other fascinating artifacts curated by you, Julian Harrison. Thank you so much for joining us on the program.

HARRISON: It's been great to speak to you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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