Founding Documents: Magna Carta

Magna Carta was sealed on a field in England in 1215. It's purpose was to appease some frustrated Barons, and it was never intended to last. Over 800 years later, this document is credited with establishing one of the most foundational principles of our democracy. So what does Magna Carta actually say? And how did it get from dubious stalling tactic in the 13th century to Supreme Court arguments in the modern era? 

In this episode, you’ll learn how Magna Carta survived and thrived its way into our democracy. Our experts this time around are Derek Taylor, William Hubbard, Joel Collins and Susan Herman.

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More Resources

Want more Magna Carta history? The British Library gives it to you straight, and in less than 4 minutes!

You can also do some deep diving of your own over at The Magna Carta Project. This site is chock full of resources, including, of course, the whole remarkable document broken down by clause, complete with audio commentary.

And here is actual footage* of that fateful day at Runnymede!

*Footage not actual.

Have a civics question you want answered? Let us know in the form below and we'll try to answer it!


NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.


Civics 101:

Magna Carta


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:00] The high Middle Ages.


[00:00:05] Europe's population is growing rapidly. The Black Death is just a glint in some rat's eye and still a century away. The economy is booming, the Catholic Church is crusading -- the feudal system is alive and well.


Peasant, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: [00:00:19] Oh, king, eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.


Nick Capodice: [00:00:31] When are we exactly?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:32] We're looking down the barrel of twelve hundred.


Nick Capodice: [00:00:35] Tremendous tremendous carry on.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:37] King Richard the Lionheart has just died after being shot in the shoulder possibly by a vengeful boy child. Richard's younger brother John inherits England. He is by many accounts a petty, cruel and hated ruler. In fact he attempted a rebellion back when Richard was alive and fighting in the Third Crusade. This is actually a key plot point in most Robin Hood movies by the way Prince John is the villain who exploits the poor serfs and prompts Robin to steal from the rich and give to the poor.


Nick Capodice: [00:01:08] Hannah I love this. I love a good history lesson but I just needed chicken for a second here. Huh. Don't get me wrong this is a spectacular rabbit hole that we're falling into. But we do need to get a bit of a wiggle on this founding document series that we are planning for a month or so.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:24] I hear ya. But what if what if. Nicholas I told you that there is a founding document all the way back here in the 13th century. A founding document for the United States the very first founding document the most foundational and not just for us not just for the United States.


[00:01:46] Some would say for the very notion of freedom under law.


Nick Capodice: [00:01:52] That's got to be one heck of a piece of paper.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:55] It is indeed. So shall we. Back to the Middle Ages back to one of the pillars of freedom?


Nick Capodice: [00:02:01] It seems pretty Civics 101.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:04] Good. Because This actually happens to be Civics 101.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:07] The podcast refresher course on the basics of how our democracy works.


[00:02:10] I'm Nick Capodice.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:11] And I'm Hannah McCarthy, and today we are kicking off our series on the founding documents of the United States with a charter a charter written long long ago by an unpopular King and a band of fed up barons. Lords and ladies.


[00:02:26] May I present Magna Carta.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:37] The Magna Carta.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:38] Actually no just Magna Carta.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:40] That's what I said. The Magna Carta.


Derek Taylor: [00:02:41] You have to forgive me. People in England don't say the Magna Carta. They say Magna Carta.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:45] Who's that.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:46] That's Derek Taylor.


Derek Taylor: [00:02:47] I started out life as a historian. I read history and law at Oxford. I then got lured into journalism and I became an international reporter working for independent television news of London and I did quite a lot of work as well for ABC News in the States was a war reporter and reporters from all over the world especially actually in the US but now in retirement I've gone back to my first love which is history back in 2015.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:03:19] Derek did a deep dive into Magna Carta for the eight hundredth anniversary of this document he traced its influence all over the world and wrote a book called Magna Carta in 20 places.


Derek Taylor: [00:03:30] And what I did though was that I went all around not only the UK but in France in the Middle East and indeed in the USA to chart what actually happened in the extraordinary history of this amazing document.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:03:45] Before we go any further with the extraordinary history of this amazing document. Quick question, Nick, do you know what Magna Carta is.


Nick Capodice: [00:03:55] I've heard of Magna Carta before I've heard it associated with Robin Hood. I know it's from England from a long time ago. But that's kind of it. I don't know what it actually says.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:05] To be honest neither did I. But it turns out that it is widely celebrated in the US. I mean we've exhibited Magna Carta in Washington D.C. directly across from our own Declaration and Constitution. We currently have a version of it on display at the Library of Congress. Magna Carta, which mean 'great charter,' by the way, in Latin, has been invoked throughout American history as a symbol of a kind of universal right.


Nick Capodice: [00:04:33] I had no idea it was so important. What does it actually say? It's got to have some powerful language.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:40] Well here's the catch -- if you actually look at the language of the original document for example printed out and study it in school take it at face value you'll be hard pressed to find the basis for democracy in Magna Carta's original words.


Derek Taylor: [00:04:56] It's surrounded and always has been surrounded by incredible misunderstandings. It's believed for instance that it was the birth of modern democracy that it was the first constitution that gave us equality under the law. All of these I hate to break it to all of these all completely untrue.


Nick Capodice: [00:05:15] So are we wrong to care about it. Hannah, did you conceive this entire episode just so you could re-watch Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:23] That was an added perk. Also the cartoon version with the fox. Oh yeah. I won't deny it but absolutely not. That's not the reason we're doing this episode before we can understand how Magna Carta served our democracy. We have to look back at how it was supposed to serve a 13th century monarchy. So let's get back to the Middle Ages.


Derek Taylor: [00:05:46] Magna Carta actually started out life in very very simple terms as a something which was simply a peace agreement in 2015. King John of England was facing a rebellion by his barons by the chief aristocrats in the country. And they decided in fact to try and work out a peace deal between themselves to be absolutely honest neither side really believed in it. They were both playing for time while they could build up their own forces and go back to the traditional way in which in the Middle Ages people settled their differences which is that of course what they did was that they used the crossbow and the sword.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:28] What Derek is saying is that Magna Carta was really just a stalling tactic. Remember King John was not a popular man. Through a combination of high taxes ill will and failed military campaigns the King found himself on the bad side of some of his barons.


Nick Capodice: [00:06:45] So the barons say to him strike a deal with us and we'll lay off.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:48] Yeah well first they stormed London and gained a bunch of antiquing followers and really freaked John out. And then John asked them to meet him for a little chat. So they picked a neutral territory a field just outside of London on the banks of the River Thames called Runnymede and there in the soft light of summer they hammer out a peace agreement.


Derek Taylor: [00:07:11] If we look at the the wording of Magna Carta it's full of words which have no meaning to us today whatsoever. Words like amercement and trithings and halbergett. What on earth did they mean. They're all feudal terms it talks about what should happen about fish traps on the river Medway.


Nick Capodice: [00:07:30] I feel I should point out that there is nothing about halbergett or amercements or fishing in the river Medway in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights as far as I know.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:38] Right.


[00:07:39] Most of Magna Carta is about obscure highly specific Berin type concerns like serfs and castles and Shiers. But there is something recognizable in this documents 60-odd clauses.


Derek Taylor: [00:07:51] We do every now and again stumble on one which we think Ah now that's interesting and for one moment all freedom loving hearts leap and then historians come in and say yeah well you may think that but it's actually really not quite like that at all. Can I just read to you what clause 39 says and you'll see you think well that's great. It says no Freeman should be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing in any other way. Nor will we. That's the King speaking. Proceed with force against him or send others to do so except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. Wonderful stuff.


Nick Capodice: [00:08:35] Yes. OK. Now you've got me on board. This is wonderful stuff and it sounds like trial by jury.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:08:40] Clause 39 does it sound like that. But it isn't that. Not really.


Derek Taylor: [00:08:46] The first thing to say is that it begins. No free man shall be seized et cetera et cetera. OK so the first thing is that 50 percent of the population women are completely excluded. The second point is that no Freeman actually in 13th century England only one man in five was free, the rest of them were agricultural serfs there were slaves so it didn't apply to them at all. So this is a document actually doing a big favor for a very small number of privileged men.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:19] Derek's doing a pretty good job of turning me against Magna Carta actually.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:24] Yeah I can kind of get that. And you know what, Magna Carta is not the mother of modern democracy... but some people do call it the midwife.


[00:09:35] It helped things along with some sage advice.


Derek Taylor: [00:09:39] It's establishing the principle that arbitrary punishment is wrong. It's establishing the principle that this kind of thing that dictators do in other words that just simply say take that man out and chop his head off is wrong. There is a process even though we don't agree with the process so that establishes that principle. But the second thing is even more important. This is the King and this is a real shocker for the 13th century. This is the king agreeing to obey the law. Now that's a first. Until this point kings were autonomous they were not responsible to anyone except God only to God. So the idea that the king has to follow rules whatever those rules are. It's an incredible breakthrough.


Nick Capodice: [00:10:31] So up until this point kings could do whatever they wanted. They made the law and they were above the law. And then suddenly the law is above them.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:10:41] Yes just not this king.


Derek Taylor: [00:10:42] Within three months of it being signed. Both sides just forgot about it and they went back to the sword in the crossbow and King John even persuaded the pope to nail it and to condemn it as being shameful shameful. But a man who is responsible to God should be made to obey rules set out by mere human beings.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:11:06] So King John places his seal on Magna Carta when he's in this field surrounded by all of these really angry barons. But then he immediately runs to the pope and he's like I'm the kings and my power comes from God. Right. And the pope is like Yeah absolutely. These parents can tell you what to do. Magna Carta is null and void and the barons wage war.


Nick Capodice: [00:11:28] That's disappointing.


Derek Taylor: [00:11:30] And it might have stayed that way it might have been a document which got banned into the vaults of some dusty old library somewhere of interest only to a few historians if it hadn't been for one thing which is that within 16 months, King John was dead.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:11:48] Dead of dysentery at age 49 now John's son Henry is in charge. He's nine years old.


Derek Taylor: [00:11:56] He was actually described as being a pretty little knight which is not the kind of words that you want to hear used about the person who's leading you know your side.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:04] Luckily the young king was appointed a grownup person a counsel a knight named William Marshall who wanted to smooth things over with the barons.


Derek Taylor: [00:12:13] He reissued Magna Carta. He negotiated a peace deal with the barons and said look the way it's going to be from now on under this this young man Henry the third John's son aged only nine is that we're going to follow the rules laid down in Magna Carta.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:36] As it turned out Magna Carta was a super useful negotiating tactic.


[00:12:41] King John wasn't so into it because it was about putting some checks on the king at least for the barons benefit but for two centuries after King John's death, Magna Carta was trotted out and revised every time a king needed to suppress or rebellion or raise money for a war. It was a king showing good faith and protecting the interest of his barons. In turn the barons would help out the king.


Nick Capodice: [00:13:04] You said the revised Magna Carta -- so that 1215 version wasn't the be all end all version.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:13:10] Right. There were actually many many versions of Magna Carta. The most significant one happened under Edward the Third in 1354. Remember how clause 39 sounded pretty good but wasn't quite there?


[00:13:24] Edward rewrote it to sound like this.


Derek Taylor: [00:13:27] No man of whatever estate or condition may be -- what a step forward that is -- no man of whatever state or condition he may be -- and if we accept for one moment in the fourteenth century it was impossible for these people to imagine that women should be included -- this is an incredible move towards equality but something even more important. Whatever condition he may be shall not be punished except by -- wait for it -- due process of law.


Nick Capodice: [00:13:57] Due process. So this is 1354. Our Bill of Rights is written in 1791... Four hundred years. How did due process get from King Edward to James Madison?


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:14:09] It basically laid kind of dormant for many centuries.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:15] This is William Hubbard. He's a former president of the American Bar Association and a lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina.


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:14:21] And then again in sort of a period of enlightenment English jurists by name of -- spelled Coke, pronounced Cook, and Blackstone sort of dusted off Magna Carta at a time when there was a belief that the king had become too powerful and too insensitive to the people.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:43] So Cook is this super important judge in the fifteen hundreds and sixteen hundreds in England. And there comes this point where the king is imprisoning people willy nilly, kind of acting like the kings of old and Coke and a handful of others say hang on we have come up against this before we know how to stop the king from this tyrannical behaviour.


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:15:03] They wrote about Magna Carta. They base their writings and their philosophies and their belief in human rights and freedom of of individuals use those words that you know though they were ancient words they they were still in existence and part of the the law of England.


[00:15:20] And so they they dusted off those words and used them in the context of the time to again try to restrict the power of the king and soon thereafter the British colonies were being established in the United States.


Nick Capodice: [00:15:39] I'm beginning to see a bit of a right place at the right time thing with Magna Carta.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:43] And wouldn't you know it. Sir Edward Coke was attorney general of England when the Virginia charter was drawn up in 16 0 6.


[00:15:50] Now this is one of many Virginia charters but this particular one gave colonists land rights in Virginia and it gave people born in the colonies the same rights as people born in England.


Nick Capodice: [00:16:05] And if Magna Carta applies in England...


Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:07] Exactly. Then it applies in America, too.


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:16:11] It's where so much of what we believe is essential started.


[00:16:14] If you just want to go back and look at what is the foundation the foundation for these principles are not something that just came out of the air in the late 1700s in the United States they had been percolating and expanded and they had been explications of what those words meant and then you're simply applying those magic words those critical words to changes in circumstances and there are times when circumstances demand that we go back to basics.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:48] If you look back at the dawn of Magna Carta back to Runnymede in the twelve hundreds the Barons were ticked off because King John was among other things levying taxes that they considered to be unfair. He was doing what he darn well pleased and they decided that enough was enough.


Nick Capodice: [00:17:06] OK this little history lesson is beginning to make a lot more sense. Let's keep it in the episode.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:17:12] Thank you.


Nick Capodice: [00:17:13] Because now we're here right at the dawn of the United States and a bunch of people who are supposedly British citizens are not being granted the same rights as British citizens.


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:17:23] The colonists were asserting that they had the same rights as an Englishman as American colonists they still had the same rights as Englishmen. And how did they prove that they proved that by citing provisions of Magna Carta.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:17:36] Now at this point in England parliament is really more important than Magna Carta Magna Carta is respected and it's lodged in English common law. But you're not necessarily going to hear British born citizens make constant reference to it in their laws.


[00:17:53] But for Americans this old unshakeable document is essential to their case.


Wiliam Hubbard: [00:18:01] You know that phrase taxation without representation became a rallying cry of the colonists who because of the rights conveyed in Magna Carta believed that the British government had broken its contract in Magna Carta gave them a basis for rebellion and gave intellectual underpinning to the revolution.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:18] Magna Carta was actually at hand when colonists organized their first act of political rebellion.


Joel Collins: [00:18:24] That was the stamp act Congress of 1765.


[00:18:27] That's Joel Collins, lawyer and law professor at South Carolina Honors College.


Joel Collins: [00:18:32] Here again citing Magna Carta.


[00:18:34] They say this violates Clause 12 which guarantees the king will not enact taxes except with the common consent of the realm. So the idea of taxes without representation they said violates Magna Carta.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:52] When the first Continental Congress met in fall of 1774 and drafted a declaration of rights and grievances to be issued to Britain. Guess what was on the seal of their journal?


Nick Capodice: [00:19:03] I'm going to guess it has some of the do with Magna Carta, Hannah.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:05] It does indeed. The words Magna Carta at the base of a column grasped by twelve hands representing unity.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:14] If it's the colonies why is it 12 and not 13 hands?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:16] That's a good question. In 1774 there were only twelve colonies. Delaware was still a part of Pennsylvania until 1776.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:24] Delaware!


Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:25] Delaware man. And speaking of those original twelve colonies concepts that originated in Magna Carta were in nine of those twelve original state constitutions.


Joel Collins: [00:19:36] You know that men have the right of self-determination unalienable rights they are rights that -- that you don't fight for and earn, they are yours upon your birth.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:54] But by the time we get to the Declaration of Independence.


[00:19:57] You're not seeing Magna Carta explicitly referenced, right?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:20:00] Yeah, true but as Joel points out our Framers were reading a lot of philosophy and social theory and they built that into the declaration and eventually into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights they interpreted the principles of documents like Magna Carta for the purposes of American democracy.


Joel Collins: [00:20:19] I think they were very mindful of Magna Carta. I think they were extremely well read. Read the golden passages of Magna Carta, Clause 38 -- henceforth no bailiff shall upon his own support accusation put any man to trial without producing credible witnesses to the truth of the accusation -- there's your every man. He's being given rights. Clause 39 -- no free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished in any way and we will proceed against or prosecute him only upon the lawful judgment of his peers.


[00:20:53] There's your jury trial. And The law of the land, there's your due process of law, applicable to everybody.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:00] It kind of doesn't matter that Magna Carta was first written for a select group of people with totally different life experience and morals and prejudice than us.


[00:21:09] What matters is this fluke of a 1215 stalling tactic somehow stayed alive long enough to inspire an almost divine Principle.


[00:21:20] And that's why it's important that we learn about it.


Susan Herman: [00:21:24] You know, Magna Carta has just had a tremendous explosive impact over time to get it.


[00:21:29] It was kind of a seed and that seed is really I think developed some offshoots that really might have been very surprising to the barons.


[00:21:37] This is Susan Herman, President of the American Civil Liberties Union.


Susan Herman: [00:21:41] Magna Carta idea of law the land was not something that went through our society it only went to 15 percent of the people. Now when the United States Constitution was written. I think you know we don't like to think about it this way but are the framers of our Constitution our founding fathers were not that dissimilar from the barons who went to King John and 1215. They were all white men. Who was left out of the people who were writing the constitution and who was left out of the basic idea of knew who could vote and who was a member of the society were women, people of color, Native Americans, men without property.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:22:19] In Magna Carta Susan says you see the seeds of freedom. It is by no means a freedom that applies to all but the idea itself is so good and feels so right to all humans that it sticks and it evolves and it spreads.


Susan Herman: [00:22:40] So I went this morning because I knew we were going to be talking I went to the ACLU website and just search the term Magna Carta. And there were 77 results when ACLU lawyers write briefs. There are many kinds of briefs in which they reference Magna Carta and those essential principles of no one being above the law.


Nick Capodice: [00:22:58] Modern day lawyers are citing a document from 800 years ago?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:23:02] Magna Carta has been referenced dozens of times and supreme court cases over the years.


Theodore B. Olson, on behalf of Bankers Life and Casualty Company: [00:23:08] The more one examines the history of the excessive fines flaws and its antecedent, the amercement - excessive aercements clause of Magna Carta...


Chambers v. Florida: [00:23:17] My concept of due process, Mr. Justice Black, which I think goes back to the law of the land of Magna Carta...


SCOTUS: [00:23:28] There were no courts to which people could seek redress against the crown at the time of Magna Carta.


SCOTUS: [00:23:29] In fact the issue was addressed in the very first clause of Magna Carta. There King John agreed, and this is quote, "the English church shall be free." End quote. And he accepted the church's quote "freedom of elections."


Nick Capodice: [00:23:52] So when we think of magna carta as the midwife of democracy it's kind of like thinking of the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the things that guarantee our equality because when they were written they didn't actually guarantee equality and liberty for everybody.


[00:24:08] They became that the more that we used them because the basic principles of freedom are in there.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:24:14] Exactly. Susan says it boils down to fairness.


Susan Herman: [00:24:18] I think what due process means is it really means being fair laws the land due process it means that --


[00:24:25] Well it's another way that I would describe it as to meet a lot of the idea of rights and civil liberties is really about the golden rule. That --


[00:24:34] Imagine that you're being charged with something somebody says that you've done something that the crime that's wrong and then they just want to lock you up and or punish you somehow and you would feel that that was very unfair because you might have a defense you might have something to say about how you don't think you really were wrong in what you were doing and if you didn't get a chance to defend yourself you would really feel that that was unfair.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:24:54] Fairness is this thing that were naturally drawn to. Remember how Derek Taylor talked about our freedom loving hearts at the beginning of the episode? How we read things into Magna Carta that aren't literally there?


[00:25:07] That's because we sense this magic bean at the core of Magna Carta and accidentally possibly made up magic bean that ended up being strong enough to inspire a great democratic experiment.


Nick Capodice: [00:25:21] That nobody is above the law.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:25:24] Not even Mother England.


Susan Herman: [00:25:26] It sounds like we might be ready for a declaration and maybe even the declaration.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:25:31] That's next time on Civics 101.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:25:42] One last word here on this remarkable document. If you're planning to read it I say go for the 13 54 version. It is pretty exciting to look at those words are those words in translation and see the first instance of the term due process in clause 39.


Nick Capodice: [00:25:59] Hannah, this may be a dumb thing to ask but do you really need to read Magna Carta?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:26:06] Well there really is a lot of stuff in there about knights and the price of corn and living in a forest and fishing on the river Medway. It's very much a document for Barens. The idea and the spirit are what matter most about Magna Carta. Right. So do you have to read it to understand the point of it. I say not necessarily. That said, Nick, the rest of the documents in this series the ones that are written on U.S. soil, you gotta read those. Do you agree?


Nick Capodice: [00:26:42] I agree.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:26:43] We are endeavoring to make them easier to understand and appreciate. But you still have to read them. You have to read them before you listen.


[00:26:50] After you listen read them read them read them. You think I made my point?


Nick Capodice: [00:26:54] I think you got your point -- point well taken.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:27:05] Civics 101 was produced today by me, McCarthy with Nick Capodice.


Nick Capodice: [00:27:08] Our staff includes Jackie Helbert, Ben Henry, Daniela Allee and Jack Rodolico.


[00:27:13] Erica Janik is our executive producer.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:27:15] Maureen McMurry is Extra Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of Divine Halberget.


Nick Capodice: [00:27:21] Music in this episode is by Bad Snacks -- what a name -- Wayne Jones, Jahzzar and Blue Dot essions.


[00:27:27] There is a transcript of this episode as well as a bunch of other resources at Civics 101 podcast.


[00:27:33] Dot org. And while you're there check out extra credit on our Web site.


[00:27:37] It's our biweekly newsletter that Hanna and I cobbled together on a host of fun topics related to our episodes Civics 101 is a production of an each new Hampshire Public Radio.



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