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Great Britain exhibited its foundational "Great Charter" at the Fair, emphasizing the Anglo-American friendship so desperately needed in the tumultuous times prior to World War II.

Americans and the Great Charter

Sir Louis Beale, British Commissioner General to the Fair, emphasized: "It was felt that our national contribution would be incomplete without some reference to the foundations in the past, in which both of the great English-speaking democracies have their roots." To that end, the designers included a special room to display an original copy of the Magna Carta.

Great Britain housed four copies of the Magna Carta: two in the British Museum, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and the one loaned to the Fair by the Lincoln Cathedral.

The invaluable document arrived in New York on the Queen Mary on April 20. A blue ribbon with its knots covered in red seals enclosed the heavy wooden case, two feet by three feet by six inches. A tag read "On His Majesty's Service" and a red chalk "Fragile" marked the top.

The New York Times' editors heralded the arrival of the Magna Carta as "the ever-living fountain from which flow those liberties which the English-speaking world enjoys today." The following day Mayor La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine, Sir Louis Beale, and Godfrey Haggard, Britain's Consul General, escorted the Magna Carta to the Fair. The document's insured value was listed at $500,000.

Once installed in its protective display case, two women approached the exhibit. One said to her friend: "I'm glad it's the Fair we came to. You can learn a lot here. Before I left home I told my sister that if it came to a choice between Coney Island and the Fair, I'd see the Fair." However, many Fairgoers didn't harbor the same intellectual purpose.

A guard strategically placed near the display case expressed astonishment that at least 30% of the pavilion's visitors had no idea of the significance of the great charter. Used to standing in lines to view the Fair's exhibits, tourists often queued up without any understanding of what they were about to view. Common responses included, "Oh, it's just a piece of paper" and "It's something to read but we can't stop to read it all." After standing for quite some time before the display case, a guard requested a lady proceed on, to which she replied: "I'm just waiting for the Magna Carta to start."

One couple hurried into the New Zealand pavilion where the husband demanded to see "the magic carpet." After a guide informed the husband the exhibit had no magic carpet, his wife uttered: "Don't be stupid, Henry. It's the Magna Carta we want."

A lady-of-means requested her maid inquire as to why people lined up in the pavilion. When told they planned to view the Magna Carta, the woman shouted: "Not interested! King John was a damned old rogue, and everybody knows it."

However, for most people the chance to view Britain's great document proved wondrous. The immense response to the British exhibit led America's Commissioner General Ed Flynn to request the Library of Congress loan the United States pavilion its copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. President Roosevelt flatly replied, "NO!"

Citing safety concerns with the onset of war, the pavilion's general manager, G. W. Baldock, made preparations for the pavilion's two most treasured exhibits, the Magna Carta and the coronation painting, to remain in the United States. The New York Times' editors praised the move, citing the Magna Carta as "the parent cell through which our liberties have been transited into the living body of democratic law. Wherever Magna Carta rests, wherever it is accepted as the foundation stone of the slowly built wall against anarchy and despotism alike, is a strong citadel."

On November 28, British ambassador Lord Lothian entrusted the Magna Carta to Archibald MacLeish, the director of the Library of Congress. Mr. MacLeish commented this was "an action full of meaning for our time" as librarians placed the rare document in a specially designed case directly opposite the one containing the United States' Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Earlier at the Fair, a pavilion guide became confused when a visitor asked where they displayed George Washington's cherry tree. Actually, the pavilion's Magna Carta room included an elaborate, detailed "family tree" for George Washington on the wall opposite the charter's display case. This attempt by the designers to tie in the Magna Carta to U.S. history failed miserably.

The "family tree" traced Washington's lineage to King John and many nobles who signed the Magna Carta. However, it seemed everyone focused on the abhorrent royal ancestry.

A schoolboy informed his mother: "Look, Mom, this says George Washington was an Englishman. Our teacher said he was an American!" Another onlooker snorted: "British propaganda! How could George Washington be descended from an English king? Didn't he hate them inside?"

The New York Times' editors consoled distraught Americans: "No doubt in a perfect world George Washington would trace his descent from Richard the Lion-hearted, William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Pickwick. One can only wonder at the fine way in which the Father of His Country surmounted the handicap of that King John taint."