William Penn on the three fundamental rights of citizens
Acton Institute Powerblog

William Penn on the three fundamental rights of citizens

Yesterday was the birthday of William Penn, the influential English Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania. This year also marks the 300th anniversary of his death.

Although Penn was an Englishman, he became, as Gary M. Galles says, the first great champion of American liberty. As Galles notes,

When Charles II died, a large debt to Penn’s father was settled in 1681 by granting him what would become Pennsylvania. Penn implemented his authority over the colony in his 1682 Frame of Government, Pennsylvania’s first constitution. Despite being answerable only to the King, Penn provided for elected representatives, a separation of powers, religious freedom, and fair trials, all of which were incorporated in our Constitution.

In 1679, three years before he took over the American colony, Penn laid the groundwork by arguing in the English Parliament for the recognition of three fundamental rights that should belong to all citizens: the right to property, the right to share in the making of the laws, and the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. Penn wanted to warn his countrymen about the dangers of forgetting their rights—a lesson we still need to hear today.

Because Penn’s seventeenth century grammar and vocabulary is unfamiliar to us, I’ve taken the liberty of “translating” his speech for modern readers:

We, the members of the House of Commons of England, are a great part of the fundamental government of the country. Three rights are so particular and important to us that we will not relinquish them for fear or favor, for meat and drink, or for those other little present profits, that men of ill will offer to tempt us with. These rights cannot be altered or repealed. And this I was willing to give you a brief hint of, that you may know what sort of creatures you are and what your power is, lest through ignorance of your own strength and authority, you become captive the fickle moods of those in power, that properly and truly are but your servants, and ought to be used so.

The first of these three fundamentals is property. You have the right and title to your own lives, liberties, and lands. In this, every man is a sort of little supreme authority to himself. No other man has power over him, to imprison or hurt it, or over his property to trespass or seize it. Only your own violation of the civil laws, (and those you made through your representatives) lays you open to losing your property, which is but the punishment due to your crimes, and this but in proportion to the fault committed. So that the legitimate power of the state of England is the power of laws, which is the only form that should truly merit the name of legitimate government. That which is contrary to the rule of law, is a tyranny, and not properly a government. Now the law is umpire between King, Lords and Commons, and the right to one’s property is the same for all men!

The second fundamental right, as your birthright and inheritance as Englishmen, is the right of legislation, or the power of making laws. No law can be made or repealed in England without you. Before Henry III’s time, your ancestors, the landowners of England, would represent themselves. But their population has increased, and there is now so many people that such direct assemblies are no longer a practicable way of conducting the business of governance. This way of representation was first proposed as an expedient measure, both to maintain the common right of making law, and to avoid the confusion of trying to do it in large assemblies of people. So that now, as in the past, no law can be made, no taxes imposed, and no money demanded of you (even to defray the costs of the government) without your own consent. Is there a better way of creating free and secure people?

Your third great fundamental right and privilege is the right to a jury. The right is connected to the other two, in order to complete both your freedom and security. This right is your share in the administration of justice, in the execution and application of those laws that you agree to be made. To the extent that no man, according to the ancient laws of the nation, can be adjudged in matters of life, liberty, or property, but it must be by the judgment of his peers, that is, twelve men of the neighborhood, commonly called a jury. Though this right has been infringed by two acts made in the previous Parliament—one against the Quakers in particular, and the other against dissenters in general—called, An Act against Seditious Religious Meetings, where persons are declared offenders of the law and punished without a jury. It is hoped this Parliament will think fit in their wisdom to repeal this law, though with less severity, than one of the same nature (as to punishing men without juries) was by Henry VII, who beheaded Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson for embezzlement.

Consider for your selves that there is nothing more important to your interest than for you to understand your rights in the government, and to be constantly protective of them, for your well-being depends upon their preservation.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).