In 1939, and again in 1940, Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. This first overseas loan of Magna Carta was made on the advice of the Department of Overseas Trade, which hoped that, by reasserting the common origins of British and American liberties, displaying that document would strengthen Anglo-American relations.
By the time the 1939 World’s Fair had closed, Britain and Germany were at war and an increasingly isolated Britain was looking to the United States for assistance. Plans to present Lincoln’s Magna Carta to America had been raised as early as the summer of 1939, but this proposal gained new momentum when the Lease-Lend Act was passed by the United States Congress in March 1941. The Act granted material support for Britain’s war effort, and it was suggested in some quarters that presenting Magna Carta to the United States would further mobilise American public opinion in support of the war. Indeed, one British government official wrote that, ‘The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious of acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.’
In March 1941 a memorandum proposing that the Lincoln Magna Carta be presented to the United States was brought before the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965). However, it was soon realised that the document in question was not the property of the British government to give away, and that the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral would be unwilling to surrender their Magna Carta. By mid-April the British government had quietly dropped the proposal, and for much of the remainder of the war Lincoln’s Magna Carta was guarded at Fort Knox, before being repatriated in 1946.
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Curator Dr Matthew Shaw explores the role of Magna Carta in the politics and popular culture of modern America. From The Simpsons and Jay-Z to the American law courts and the ‘War on Terror’, discover the significance of Magna Carta in the USA today.
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Today Magna Carta has become a world-class brand, representing human rights, democracy and free speech – despite the fact that the original document makes no mention of these principles. Joshua Rozenberg explains Magna Carta’s place in modern legal and popular culture, and reveals the importance of its 800-year-old symbolism.
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