Britain Offered Copy of the Magna Carta to US During WWII

This is a Monday, Feb. 2, 2015 file photo of members of the media as they film four of the original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts that have been brought together by the British Library for the first time.

LONDON (AP) — Documents being displayed at the British Library show that Britain offered the United States an original copy of the Magna Carta in hopes of persuading a reluctant America to enter World War II and to fight against Nazi Germany.

The Foreign Office offer, made before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, was floated after the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which offered material to the British to fight the Nazis. Britain desperately needed the United States to lend its might to the war effort, and recognized a reluctant American public was wary of being drawn into what was seen as foreign conflict.

The idea was later quietly dropped because the government did not in fact own the copy of the charter it was intending to give away.

The suggestion of it, however, shows the power of the ideas contained in the 1215 charter that sets out the principle that everyone, including the monarch, is subject to the law.

Claire Breay , the co-curator of the landmark exhibition, said Wednesday that Britain believed that "the gift of this document might be a powerful enough thing to persuade a country like America to go to war."

"It's incredible," she said. "At the point at which the freedoms set out in Magna Carta are under threat, the government thinks about turning to Magna Carta."

Though the offer was previously known, it is the first time the documents have been displayed. The exhibition also includes comments made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in red pencil.

The documents also offer an assessment of why Americans might be open to such an offer.

"Owing to comparative youth and rapid expansion, America contains few monuments to the past," the document reads. "The architecture of the country is almost uniformly modern; its historical documents are extremely few and not very ancient; its society lacks the customs and ceremonies of former epochs."

The exhibition opens Friday and includes Thomas Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and a copy of the Bill of Rights.

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