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Sir Edward Coke

Sir Edward Coke was a barrister, judge, and politician whose impact on the way Magna Carta has been read cannot be overestimated. After a legal career that included, among other offices, serving as attorney general for Queen Elizabeth I and chief justice of King’s Bench for King James I, Coke joined the House of Commons where he was solicitor general and later speaker of the House of Commons. His major work, The Institutes of the Lawes of England, published in four parts from 1628 to 1644, was one of the principal sources of the common law and the standard text for students of the law on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a century.

A Teaching Text for Liberty

Sir Edward Coke’s The Second Part of the Institutes contains a detailed commentary on Magna Carta that casts the charter as the central legal safeguard of individual liberties against arbitrary action by the king. Coke understood Magna Carta, not as an assertion of new rights, but as a declaration of rights that the English people held since antiquity. On display is Thomas Jefferson’s own copy of Coke’s Institutes. Jefferson’s initials can be seen at the bottom right of the page.
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