Last night I had the honor of speaking at the celebration of the Magna Carta at the National Archives in Washington. The event is part of the new campaign by the Trust for the National Mall. The dinner was held in the Rotunda Gallery with the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and one of the copies of the Magna Carta. Introducing me was the man who owns that Magna Carta, David Rubenstein. That’s right, he owns the 1297 version of Magna Carta.
The event was truly magnificent. I was allowed to walk around and get close views of the documents — an experience that I always finding very powerful and moving. This is my favorite place on earth. There is something incredibly tranquil and majestic about this small, dimly lit room — like a secular chapel celebrating the struggle for liberty. To see the tiny understated signature of James Madison on the Constitution never fails to fill me with awe.
The Magna Carta in the Archives is not one of the four or so copies from 1215. This one is sealed by King Edward, not King John. However, the first Magna Carta was never fulfilled by King John and denounced by Pope Innocent III. Indeed, I doubt that King John ever intended to comply with the document upon which he placed his seal in the meadow at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. The rebellious lords had taken London and he knew he had to agree to save not just his crown but possibly his life.
Rubenstein bought this copy after Ross Perot put it up for sale without placing any condition that it remain in the United States. As a result, there was a good chance that we would lose our only copy for forever. That is why this country owes such a great debt to David Rubinstein. He immediately saw the danger of our losing this foundational document and flew to the auction to claim it for the United States. He then gave it to the National Archives. He has made other incredible donations to preserve founding documents and history as one of the country’s great benefactors. Rubenstein, Carlyle Group co-founder, most recently made a $7.5M donation to kick-start restoration of the Washington Monument.
How cool would it be for a Rubenstein kid to put on his report on the Magna Carta for school in the reference section: “worked from original.” I told Rubenstein that I was just glad I did not have to follow him in the parent show and tell. It is pretty hard to follow the Dad who owns the Magna Carta with my famous imitation of a duck drinking water. Of course, I would have ponied up the $20 million for the Magna Carta if I only had the wall space . . . and the $20 million. Rubenstein has given the Magna Carta to the Archives for permanent display and, upon his death, it will be given to the people of the United States.
The National Trust is starting a major push to improve the national mall and this dinner was a wonderful way to kick off such efforts. It is a truly worthy cause and people like Rubenstein deserve the gratitude of the nation. He is an example of someone who works very hard to give back to the country and a variety of schools including our shared alma mater, the University of Chicago. He is also on the board of the Trust, Duke University and a host of other major non-for-profit institutions.