William Penn: Pennsylvania’s Original Rising Star

More than perhaps any other single case, Penn’s trial refined the trial system of Britain and America

Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine

By Carolyn Herman on November 25, 2005


Most lawyers are used to arguing cases before a jury. But being thrown in jail with members of the same jury you are trying to convince? That would be a new experience. Yet that’s what happened to William Penn, the original Pennsylvania Rising Star. And what happened helped ensure the independence of the modern jury system.

In 1670, Penn, the English gentleman, founder of Pennsylvania and inspiration for the United States Constitution, was a 25 year old who believed in certain freedoms and rights that the English government found inconvenient to observe — such as fair trials and freedom of religion. One act to which Penn took particular exception was the Coventicle Act, which was an attempt to ensure the dominance of the Church of England.

This did not sit well with the newly converted Quaker. Penn and his friend William Mead violated the Act by preaching to a “tumultuous crowd” at Grace Church in London — an act that, by law, could be punishable by death.

Despite Penn’s adroit legal argumentation and impassioned references to the Magna Carta and English Common Law, it should have been an open-and-shut case for the prosecutors. The 10-judge panel, which included the Lord Mayor of London, asked the jury one question: Did Penn and his friend preach at Grace Church? Since they clearly had done so, the Lord Mayor instructed the jury to find the men guilty and sat back, secure in the knowledge that the troublesome and eloquent Penn would soon find out firsthand whether his religious views carried any weight in the afterlife.

There was one problem — the jury refused to give them the verdict they wanted. The recorder was not pleased.

“Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till you bring in a verdict that the court will accept,” he said. “And you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it.” This is not exactly the modus operandi of today’s courtrooms. But in Penn’s time, it was fairly common for juries to be browbeaten into giving the verdict the court wanted. Four times, over three days, during which the jury starved and relieved themselves in the jury room, the Lord Mayor demanded that the jury return a proper legal verdict. Finally, they did — finding Penn and Mead not guilty. Furious, the Lord Mayor threw Penn and the jury into Newgate Prison, one of the worst jails in London.

At one point Penn cried out, “What hope is there of ever having justice done, when juries are threatened and their verdicts rejected?” He turned to the jury, which was being forced from the courtroom. “You are Englishmen, mind your privilege, give not away your right!”

They didn’t. Led by Edward Bushell, a Puritan and a rich man who could have paid the fines levied against them all, the jury chose to endure Newgate prison and petition for habeas corpus before the Court of Common Pleas. The court had never granted the writ before, but it did for Penn’s jury. They were set free and their verdict upheld.

More than perhaps any other single case, Penn’s trial refined the trial system of Britain and America, setting precedents for religious freedom, habeas corpus, and the rights of jurors to be free from governmental interference.

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