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William Penn, Great American

October 13, 2006

Tags BiographiesWorld HistoryPolitical Theory

October 14 is a date celebrated in Pennsylvania, but unfortunately not in other states. That is because it marks the 1644 birthday of William Penn—its founder, but also an important contributor to freedom in the US.

Before Pennsylvania was founded, Penn defended British rights on which Americans' rights would be built.

Penn joined the Quakers at 22. Because they dissented from the state religion and refused to take loyalty oaths, he became an outsider in British society. He was expelled from Oxford and arrested several times.

Put on trial for preaching at a Quaker gathering, he asked to exercise his legal right to see the charges brought against him, because

"if these ancient and fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, and which are not limited to particular persuasions in matters of religion, must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who then can say that he has a right to the coat on his back? Certainly our liberties are to be openly invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer--as their trophies but our forfeits for conscience's sake."

The judge—the Lord Mayor of London—refused and pressed the jury for a conviction. Instead, jurors found him not guilty. The Lord Mayor then sent him back to jail for contempt of court, but also fined and jailed the jury. From prison, they fought back. The result was to wrest English juries from judicial control, by holding that their verdicts could not be coerced and juries could not be punished for verdicts the government disliked. This gave them the power to judge the law as well as the facts. The right to such jury trials, which were insurance against government abuse of their citizens, were what America's founders wanted to preserve in the Bill of Rights. When Charles II died, owing a large debt to Penn's father, it was settled in 1681 by granting him what would become Pennsylvania. Penn implemented his authority over the colony in his Frame of Government, Pennsylvania's first constitution, which provided for elected representatives, a separation of powers, religious freedom and fair trials, all of which were defended much later in America's Constitution.

While he spent most of Pennsylvania's formative years in England, Penn was in the province from 1682 to 1684, as well as in 1699. While there, he led by example. He provided for fair treatment for Indians in disputes with whites. He befriended local Indians and insisted that their lands be purchased rather than conquered or stolen. Votaire praised his treaty with the Indians at Shackamaxon (commemorated in a frieze on the United States Capitol) as"the only treaty between [Indians and Europeans]...that was never infringed."

Penn importance to America's origins was great enough that President Ronald Reagan proclaimed him an honorary citizen, saying,

"In the history of this Nation, there has been a small number of men and women whose contributions to its traditions of freedom, justice, and individual rights have accorded them a special place of honor in our hearts and minds, and to whom all Americans owe a lasting debt...William Penn...worked to protect rights of personal conscience and freedom of religion. The principles of religious freedom he espoused helped to lay the groundwork for the First Amendment of our Constitution."

 In a similar vein, author Jim Powell said "William Penn was the first great hero of American liberty...Penn established an American sanctuary which protected freedom of conscience. ..He gave Pennsylvania a written constitution which limited the power of government, provided a humane penal code, and guaranteed many fundamental liberties. For the first time in modem history, a large society offered equal rights to people of different races and religions."

William Penn's experience of abuse at government hands made him fully committed to freedom. But his determination to enshrine it as the central principle of social organization, which led Voltaire to conclude that "William Penn might, with reason, boast of having brought down upon earth the Golden Age, which in all probability, never had any real existence but in his dominions," required him to think seriously about government, which can defend freedom or destroy it. Since modern Americans now give so little thought to such issues, it is worth revisiting some of his insights.

"Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."

"...no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience..."

"A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it."

"God...has made us not to devour and destroy one another, but live soberly and kindly together in the world."

"I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person."

"...it is not reasonable that men should be compelled to serve..."

"...the good of mankind is the reason and end of government..."

"...the people...may be better managed by wisdom, than ruled by force."

"Force may make hypocrites, but it can never make converts."

"To do evil that good may come of it is for bunglers in politics..."

"No man is fit to command another that cannot command himself."

"The end of every thing should direct the means: Now that of government being the good of the whole, nothing less should be the aim..."

"...as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too...Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn."

"Justice is the insurance which we have on our lives and property."

"Justice...is not guided by the person, but the cause."

"Impartiality is the life of justice, as that is of government."

"Partiality corrupts our judgment...It contributes more than any thing to Factions in Government..."

"Men must have public minds, as well as salaries; or they will serve private ends at the public cost."

"Where the ruler is just...he can be no gainer, where his people are the losers."

"...Ministers of State...have much to answer for, if to gratify private passions, they misguide the prince to do public injury."

"Envy disturbs and distracts government, clogs the wheels, and perplexes the administration: And nothing contributes more to the disorder, than a partial distribution of rewards, and punishments..."

"Three things contribute much to ruin governments; looseness, oppression and envy."

"One rules his people by laws, to which they consent; the other by his absolute will and power. That is called freedom, this tyranny."

"Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."
 

William Penn anticipated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. As he wrote in his First Frame of Government in 1682: "Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature...no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent..." He also recognized that the primary purpose of government is "to terrify evildoers...For, if it does not directly remove the cause, it crushes the effects of evil..." and that as a result, it defends liberty because it is "compulsive in its operations...only to evildoers..."

As Jim Powell put it, "Penn set an enormously important example for liberty. He showed that people who are courageous enough, persistent enough, and resourceful enough can live free. He went beyond the natural right theories of his friend John Locke and showed how a free society would actually work. He showed how individuals of different races and religions can live together peacefully when they mind their own business." There is no better time than the present to re-learn those lessons.

For more information about William Penn and his writing, his Wikipedia entry provides excellent links to articles and Penn's online works.

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