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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
PENN : If you deny me oyer [to be heard] of that law, which you suggest I have broken, you do at once deny me an acknowledged right, and evidence to the whole World your resolution to sacrifice the privileges of Englishmen to your sinister and arbitrary views.
This was too much, and the Recorder, at the end of his rope, turned to the Mayor, crying: “Take him away. My Lord, if you take not some course with this pestilent Fellow, to stop his mouth, we shall not be able to do anything tonight.”
The Mayor exclaimed, “Take him away, take him away, turn him into the bail-dock.” (The bail-dock was a small room partitioned off in the corner of the courtroom.) Then Penn let himself go in grandiloquent speech to the jury: Was this justice? Must he be taken away because he pleaded the fundamental law of England? He left it to the conscience of the jury (his sole judge) that if these fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, be not maintained, “our liberties are to be openly invaded, our wives ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, our estates led away in triumph by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer as their trophies … The Lord of Heaven and Earth will be judge between us in this matter.” The word “informer” was a red rag to the crowd, who may have hissed when they heard it.
Penn was dragged to the bail-dock and Mead tried his hand at badgering their lordships, speaking directly to the jury: “You men of the jury, here I do now stand, to answer to an indictment against me, which is a Bundle of stuff, full of lies and falsehoods.” He was accused of meeting illegally with force and arms. “Time was,” he continued, “when I had freedom to use a carnal weapon, and then I thought I feared no man; but now I fear the living God, and dare not make use thereof, nor hurt any man; nor do I know I demeaned myself as a tumultuous person … You men of the jury, who are my Judges, if the Recorder will not tell you what makes a riot, a rout, or an unlawful assembly—a riot is when three or more are met together to beat a man, or to enter forcibly into another man’s land, to cut down his grass, his wood, or break down his poles …”
At this point the Recorder interrupted Mead, and said, pulling off his hat (a gesture he must have conceived to be biting sarcasm): “I thank you, Sir, that you will tell me what the law is.”
To which Mead answered, disdainfully: “Thou may’est put on thy hat. I have never a fee for thee now.”
Alderman Brown remarked that Mead talked at random, sometimes as an Independent, now as a Quaker, next as a Papist.
Mead answered impertinently in Latin, to the effect that the Alderman did not know what he was talking about.
THE MAYOR (losing his temper): You deserve to have your tongue cut out.
THE RECORDER : If you discourse in this manner, I shall take occasion against you.
MEAD : I am an Englishman, and you might be ashamed of this dealing.
RECORDER : I look upon you to be an enemy of the laws of England, which ought to be observed and kept, nor are you worthy of such privileges as others have.
MEAD : The Lord judge between me and thee in this matter.
That was again too much for the Recorder; and Mead also was placed in the bail-dock. In the absence of both defendants the Recorder charged the jury. Penn shouted his objection from the bail-dock “in a very raised voice,” appealing to the jury, “who are my judges, and this great assembly.” Were “the proceedings of the Court not most arbitrary, and void of all law in offering to give the jury their charge in the absence of the prisoners?” Again, citing chapter and verse from Coke, and from Magna Charta, he cried that he was thoroughly prepared to argue his own case. Whereupon the Recorder “being thus unexpectedly lashed for his extrajudicial procedure,” said with a smug smile (according to the observer), “Why ye are present, ye do hear, do you not?”
“No thanks to the Court,” Penn shouted; and continued: “You of the Jury take notice that I have not been heard.” He had still at least ten or twelve material points to offer, he bellowed; and Mead added his objections to these “barbarous and unjust proceedings.” The Recorder ordered them taken to the “hole,” a sort of detention place in the Old Bailey, suggesting that it would not be to the honor of the court to hear them talk all night, “as they would.”