Proposed gift to the USA, 1941

Foreign Office document with annotations by Winston Churchill, proposing that the Lincoln copy of the 1215 Magna Carta should be granted to the USA. It was hoped that such a gift would increase American support for the British cause in the Second World War. The proposal was eventually rejected. Dated 1941 (FO 371/26169).


Lincoln copy of Magna Carta

On the 11th March the Government of the United States passed an Act which has as its wider purpose the furtherance of personal and national freedom throughout the world. Based on enlightened self-interest, this Act none the less represents a landmark in the history of liberty, and under its provisions the British Empire stands to be the principal beneficiary.

It would be peculiarly fitting if at this juncture we were to offer the Lincoln copy of Magna Carta to the American nation as a token of the history and traditions which the two countries have in common.

Magna Carta has been in American for about two years and for the last two summers it has been on view in the British Pavilion of the New York World Fair. Many thousands of Americans have waited daily in long queues to view it with a reverence and pride scarcely believable to those who have not visited the Pavilion. Magna Carta is a part of American, as well as of English, history and both peoples equally trace their personal liberties from the signing of that document. In some respects Magna Carta has a more vivid appeal for the average American than for the average Englishman. For one thing, Americans are more conscious of their national origins than are we. England emerged out of a cloud of myth lost in antiquity. America was created in 1776 by a document; the most previous national relic they possess. That document is an affirmation of personal and national liberty and it is, in American thinking, an 18th century child of Magna Carta. Owing to comparative youth and rapid expansion, American contains few monuments of the past. The architecture of the country is almost uniformly modern; its historical documents are extremely few and not very ancient; its society lacks the customs and ceremonies of former epochs. Most Americans live for years on end without a single sight to remind them that they have a past. In effect the New World lacks the dimension of time; its inhabitants live almost entirely in the present and they crave tangible evidence of their early European background much as the nouveau riche crave ancestors.

The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious of acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.

The immediate effect of such an action would be greatly to heighten the emotional interest of Americans in this country, which would thereby assist the President in his task of carrying public opinion with him in giving us increasingly greater assistance. [it will be remembered that the Lease-Lend Act does not actually give us anything; it empowers the President to assist us within the practical limits set by public opinion]. At any time previously to the passage of this Act such a gift might well have been interpreted as a form of propaganda. However, the passing of the Act is widely regarded by Americans as a final decision to support our Cause and therefore, if Magna Carta were to be given now, our motives would not be taken amiss.

The long time benefit of the proposed gift is likely to be even more important than its immediate effect, for we have (possibly not quite fairly) acquired a reputation for a lack of generosity in our national, as distinct from personal, dealings; which the debt controversy has done nothing to improve. This reputation has a tendency to make Americans suspicious and “tough” in their dealings with us. But after the war the future of the world will greatly depend on the cordiality of Anglo-American relations and a really good example of unsolicited generosity on our part would go far towards assisting us in this respect.

There are said to exist four original copies of Magna Carta. The Lincoln copy, stated to be in the best state of preservation, the Salisbury copy and two copies which are in the care of the British Museum. The Lincoln copy (now in the library of Congress), is normally in the care of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral. Before it can be given away by the nation presumably the latter would have to acquire the title to it. It is submitted that the great national importance of making this gift would justify the Prime Minister in approaching the Dean and Chapter with a request that they should relinquish their title. A direct gift to American by the Dean and Chapter would not be as effective as one made in the name of the nation. Two possibilities suggest themselves to me for effecting this transfer of title:

(a) That the Dean and Chapter be offered one of the (less perfect) British Museum copies in exchange, together with War Bonds to the value of £100,000 towards the upkeep of the Cathedral.

(b) That the Dean and Chapter be offered £250,000 in War Bonds in full compensations for their loss.

Whatever the technical process may be by which the nation would acquire title to the Lincoln Magna Carta, it is strongly urged that the gift should be announced as quickly as possible (within a few days), so soon as an agreement in principle can be reached with the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln. For the effect on Americans would be greatly enhanced if the gift came almost immediately after the passing of the Lease-Lend Act and thus appear as a graceful acknowledgement. If the gift were elayed to the late spring or summer, when its relation to the Act would not be so apparent, it might be looked upon as a crude attempt to induce the Americans to do more for us. The gift might perhaps be announced either by the Prime Minister in the House or, alternatively, by The King in a broadcast message to Great Britain and America. An appropriate ceremony in Washington to hand over the physical document to the United States authorities should follow as quickly as possible.

13th March, 1941

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