The Magna Carta, Waterloo and More: Five Anniversaries to Remember in 2015

2015 will bring a rich assortment of historical anniversaries all foreign policy watchers should be mindful of. TNI presents a sample. 

As James Lindsay writes for the Council on Foreign Relations, 2014 was replete with anniversaries of world-historical interest. From the outbreak of World War I (1914) to the Rwandan Genocide (1994), and from the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964) to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square (1989), last year provided no shortage of pause for reflection. Yet as Lindsay points out, 2015 similarly promises to be a year in which to remember. Here are five historical anniversaries that should especially resonate in the United States:

Magna Carta (1215):

Eight hundred years ago, in a muddy English field, Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy was born—or so the myth goes. In fact, the signing of Magna Carta on June 15, 1215 had more to do with enshrining the rights of England’s landed aristocrats vis-à-vis King John than ushering in a period of enlightened self-government. Nor was it particularly successful; the original agreement fell apart soon after its inception, and it would be decades before the Magna Carta’s provisions became codified in English statutory law. Today, many of its provisions seem antiquated and decidedly un-liberal; the Magna Carta was, after all, a document designed to regulate a feudal system of government. Even so, its symbolism remains powerful—abroad as much as in its land of origin.

In America, the narrative of the Magna Carta as a foundation of rights-based constitutional government was carried across the Atlantic with the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, and the charter remains a totem of the liberal political ideology that underpins the United States. Such ideas were (and remain) fundamental to the claim that the American Revolution was about asserting the natural, inalienable rights, rather than establishing a radical political order.

Battle of Waterloo (1815):

On June 18, 1815, an allied army headed by Britain’s Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. The battle’s outcome sealed the fate of Napoleon’s attempt to resurrect the French Empire and, indeed, can be thought of as the last gasp of the French Revolution: within months, a Bourbon monarch was back on the throne of France and a period of relatively stable monarchical conservativism fell across the entire European continent.

Earlier in the year, the United States had inflicted a victory of its own upon the British Empire at New Orleans—ironically, a battle fought and won after the War of 1812, the colonial offshoot of the Europe-centered Napoleonic conflagration, officially had been brought to an end. America’s triumph at New Orleans produced long-lasting political consequences, particularly insofar as it helped to propel the future president Andrew Jackson’s political career. To the north, the experience and memorialization of the War of 1812 catalyzed the formation of an incipient Canadian national identity, forever dulling the prospect of Canada’s absorption into the United States.

Internationally, the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe led to a period of tranquility regarding America’s relationship with Europe. No longer did the United States have to choose sides between warring Britain and France—a vexing dilemma (and serious national-security threat) that had plagued every president since George Washington. Instead, the unfolding era of Pax Britannica would create the conditions for the United States to avoid entanglement with European affairs and instead pursue continental expansion mostly free from the specter of molestation by the great powers of the Old World.

Voting Rights Act (1965):

It has now been fifty years since the Voting Rights Act. Alongside the previous year’s Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act was a legislative centerpiece of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s broad campaign to implement constitutional protections for African-Americans and other racial minority groups. In particular, the Act was designed to force the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment, which outlawed racial discrimination in the electoral process. It was an ambitious piece of legislation, reasserting the role of the federal government as a protector of minority rights, even if this meant taking on and overruling Democratic segregationists in the southern states.

The mid-1960s were a fulcrum in American political time. The election-winning New Deal coalition assembled by Franklin D. Roosevelt was fraying as northern Democrats accepted divorce with their southern counterparts as the price of pushing the civil-rights agenda. The ensuing partisan realignment—hastened by Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” towards the end of the 1960s—set in motion a process of political development that led to the neat liberal-conservative cleavage that currently defines U.S. politics.