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The Ordeal Of William Penn
Long before he founded his Quaker commonwealth in America, he stood up for religious freedom against the awesome power of the Crown—and put the entire English-speaking world in his debt
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
If he had never come across the Great Sea, it he had never founded his peaceful commonwealth, we would still be in debt to William Penn. At twenty-six, with all his better-known achievements before him, he performed an enduring service to ihe liberties of the English-speaking world. It was London in 1670, ten years after the overthrow of Cromwell’s Puritans and the Restoration of the Stuarts. A new crusading faith was making its appearance (they are always annoying to the authorities), and young Perm, a Quaker agitator, was on trial for disturbing the peace.
Members of the court threatened the jury with fines and hinted at torture if they did not bring in a verdict to the judge’s taste—but they would not yield: “NOR WILL WE EVER DO IT!” their foreman shouted in answer to Penn’s impassioned appeal, “Give not away your right!” The trial is a landmark in English and American history.
Less than qoo years ago these twelve men established the independence of English juries: they should make their own decisions, and must not be “led by the nose” by any court. The right they defended was embodied in Magna Charta, which provided: “No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, nor be disseized of his Freehold or Liberties or Free-Customs or be Outlawed or Exiled, or any other ways destroyed; nor we shall not pass upon him nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the Laws of the land.” Now that pledge, so painfully wrung from King John, was being discarded by the courts. Three years before Penn s trial, the House of dominons had investigated Lord Chief Justice Keeling in connection with official misconduct, asserting that he had undervalued, vilified, and condemned Magna Charta, “the great preserver of our lives, freedom and property’ : and on November 13, 1667, an entry was made in the Parliament [ournal: “Resolved that the precedents and practice of fining or imprisoning jurors for verdicts is illegal.” But this resolution had not stopped the practices of the judges. What did stop them was the obstinate courage of an English jury who had faith in their law, and knew how to assert it, nuclei the skillful leadership of the man whom they were trying.
The members of this jury were little, everyday men, none of them gentlemen, as Pcnn was described in the indictment, men of no importance. In ordinary circumstances a trial for disturbing the peace would have been held before only a single judge, who would quickly have sent the accused to jail, and the case would have been forgotten. Eut Pcnn had fired the Quakers with his dogged insistence that they had the right to worship their own God in their own way; to doll their headgear to no man, not even to any judge, for to God only was such obeisance due: and to meet quietly Io worship in the open air in Gracechuich Street (sometimes known as “Gracious Street”), in the parish of Bridgeware!, London.
Penn was behind this “nuisance,” and was causing all the trouble, claiming the lights of Englishmen—just as it Quakers could be thought of in those terms. So the Crown decided to put on a show; and summoned the Lord Mayor, Sir Samuel Starling, in his robes and his massive gold chain and his rather pitiful ignorance of the law, even if he cotdd recognize a nuisance, especially when “rights” were being claimed to defend it. With him sat the Recorder, John Howel, the chief criminal judge of the City of London, equally unlearned in the law which he was supposed to administer, a stupid man with little to sustain him except a few worn-thin Latin proverbs which he took delight in misapplying. He was a dull, heavy man, who was soon angry when the trial came alive, and kept his hot temper simmering; he suspected that Penn was making fun of him—which indeed Penn was. Sir John Robinson, the prosecutor for the Crown, was Lieutenant of the Tower and had come to know this obstinate young Quaker agitator and pamphleteer when he had been sent to the Tower for nine months not long before to keep him out of mischief—“in safe custody,” as the phrase went. Four aldermen also sat on the bench, all of them knights, and three knighted sheriffs. And there was a goodly crowd of spectators who hated judges, and would not observe silence in court, and so strongly expressed their sympathy with the prisoners that now and then the Recorder had to call them to order.
… William’s father, Sir William Perm, a Royalist at heart, was still a practical man and knew how to get along during the Protectorate. Hc advanced under Cromwell to become Rear Admiral of the Irish Seas and Vice Admiral in command of England’s Third Fleet. After Sir William defeated the Dutch in 1653, when William was eight, the Protector appointed him General at Sea; many enemy ships, casualties, prisoners, and pri/es lay to his credit. Hut in two or three years the Admiral was in the Tower, suspected of being too close to the exiled Charles 11. Released in five weeks, he went to his castle at Macroon in Ireland, and it was there that William saw the “inner light” for the first time—the quickening of man’s soul by direct mystical communication with its Creator. For, as we are inlormed by various Penn biographers, an itinerant and eloquent Quaker named Thomas Loe had been invited to Macroon, and when he preached, a black servant belonging to William’s father wept aloud; William, watching his lather with awe, saw the tears running down his cheeks, and he too was deeply moved. They were told of the new doctrine that men had the right to wait upon the Lord unaided by any kind of priest. Loe talked ol’ the simplicity of honest, plain living, devoid of plumes and laces, and of the dignity of humility.