Eight hundred years ago last week in a meadow west of London, King John of England did something peculiar for a king: He promised to obey "the law of the land." And thus was born, we have been taught, America's "rule of law" - the principle that political leaders must act within boundaries set out in law.

English kings at that time did not feel bound to obey the law (much less anything else), so John's promise is typically celebrated as a huge step forward in the history of good government. It is entirely proper to remember Magna Carta for this achievement, but the history of the document teaches us just as much about the rule of law's essential partner: the rule of politics.

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