(Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in print in the May 2008 issue of The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.)
"Sold!" cried the Sotheby’s auctioneer on the night of Dec. 18, 2007, as one of history’s oldest political documents changed hands. It was the Magna Carta, or rather, a copy of it that dated to 1297. The buyer was not a government but an individual, a Washington lawyer named David Rubenstein. He paid $21.3 million for it and promptly announced he wanted his newly acquired private property to stay on public view at the National Archives in the nation’s capital.
A privately owned Magna Carta? Aren’t such important things supposed to be public property? A couple of "educated" American students visiting Britain in mid-December certainly thought so. For a story that aired on CNN about the auction at Sotheby’s, they were interviewed at the British Library in London while gazing upon another of the great charter’s copies on display there.
"I couldn’t imagine that there is still a privately owned copy of the Magna Carta floating around the world. It seems really incredible that any one person should actually have that in their possession," one of the young scholars pronounced. "Personally, I hope the government or some charitable foundation gets a hold of it so that everybody can enjoy seeing it," chimed the other. Both assumed that private property and public benefit, at least with regard to historical preservation, were incompatible.
The Magna Carta copy that Mr. Rubenstein bought will not be spirited into his closet because it is the new owner’s wish that it be preserved for public display. While some might say humanity lucked out in this particular instance, it really is just the latest in a rich heritage of private care of documents, manuscripts and objects of historical significance. Indeed, the very copy Mr. Rubenstein bought was previously owned by businessman Ross Perot’s foundation, which in turn had acquired it in 1984 from yet another private owner, the Brudenell family of Britain. Given the record, those students should have sung hosannas to private efforts like that of Mr. Rubenstein.
The content of books from the ancient world appears to have been brought into the digital age largely through private efforts. Through various eras, libraries, scribes and printers were supported to a great extent through private patronage.
Ecclesiastical institutions were critical to preserving texts that are important to the Western tradition, points out Dr. Ryan Olson, former director of education policy at the Mackinac Center and holder of a doctorate in the classics from Oxford University. For example, says Olson, the 6th century Cassiodorus finished his career as a government official in Ravenna and organized monastic efforts to copy Christian and classical texts. Some work of Cassiodorus’ monks seems to have ended up in Rome, where it could be more influential. Though the history of transmission can be difficult to trace, scholars have argued that at least one classical work, by Cato, seems to have survived to this day because of Cassiodorus’ efforts. "It is our intention," Cassiodorus wrote shortly before his death, "to weave into one fabric and assign to proper usage whatever the ancients have handed down to modern custom."
The famous Library of Alexandria, one of the grandest in the ancient world according to Olson, was started by the Ptolemies and funded by a grant from their own wealth. The library contained the greatest works of antiquity in about 500,000 rolls and seems to have provided the impetus for the creation of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible that was essential not only for Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, but was also used by the authors of the Christian New Testament.
I also learned from Dr. Olson that the Roman politician, lawyer and author Cicero revealed in his letters a network of extensive personal libraries that preserved important books that could be read by members of the public and even borrowed and sent with messengers. Books could be consulted and returned or copied for one’s own library and returned to the owner. If one wanted to look at several books, a personal visit to a private library could be arranged.
The Bodleian Library at Oxford where Dr. Olson once studied was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley and dedicated in 1602. King James I, upon entering the library in August of 1605, said the library’s founder should be dubbed "Sir Thomas Godly." Bodley had spent his considerable personal wealth acquiring books and early manuscripts that have formed the core of one of the most extensive collections in the world. That collection includes among its innumerable treasures a first-edition of "Don Quixote," a manuscript of Confucius acquired at a time when few could read its Chinese characters, a 14th century copy of Dante’s "Divine Comedy," as well as first editions of the works of John Milton, who called the library a "most sacred centre," a "glorious treasure-house" of "the best Memorials of Man."
Additional examples of history preservation through private means are, it turns out, legion. Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon acquired a massive assortment of prized art work. He donated his entire collection (plus $10 million for construction) to start the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of historic homes and buildings all across America are owned and maintained privately, many of them refurbished and open for public viewing. Even historic lighthouses, once largely public property, are being preserved today by private owners after decades of neglect by government authorities. On and on it goes.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that history’s greatest book burners have not been private individuals and institutions, but rather governments and quasi-governments empowered by the force of the state.
The more one looks into this, the more apparent it is that private efforts have been more than just a side show in historical preservation. They are the centerpiece. And why should it be otherwise? Private owners invest their own resources, acquiring an instant and personal interest in the "capital" value of the historical asset. Being a government employee does not make one more interested in, or better equipped to care for, the things we regard as historically valuable than those numerous private citizens who put their own resources on the line.
So what’s the problem about a copy of the Magna Carta being purchased by a private citizen? Nothing at all. To suggest otherwise is simply to utter an uninformed and antiquated prejudice. In a civil society of free people, that prejudice should be rare enough to be a museum piece.
Lawrence W. Reed on Sept. 1 assumed the roles of president at the Foundation for Economic Education and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.