Oct. 14 is an important but overlooked day in American history. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and an important influence on what would become America, was born on that day in 1644.
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 ... 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 estates led away ... forfeits for conscience's sake."
Later, Penn wrote that "no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience."
The judge -- the lord mayor of London -- refused and pressed the jury for a conviction, but the jury found him innocent. The lord mayor then sent him back to jail for contempt of court, and also fined and jailed the jury. From prison, they fought back. The result wrested English juries from judicial control, so that verdicts could not be coerced and juries could not be punished for verdicts the government disliked, providing what Penn termed "the insurance which we have on our lives and property" against government abuse.
When King 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, which provided for elected representatives, a separation of powers, religious freedom and fair trials, all incorporated later in the U.S. Constitution.
When in Pennsylvania, Penn led by example. He provided for fair treatment for Native Americans in disputes with whites. He insisted that their lands be purchased, rather than conquered or stolen. Voltaire praised his treaty with the Indians at Shackamaxon (commemorated in a frieze on the U.S. Capitol) as "the only treaty between (Indians and Europeans) ... that was never infringed."
Penn anticipated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. As he wrote in his First Frame of Government, "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."
Penn's experience of government abuse made him fully committed to freedom. And his determination to enshrine it as the central principle of social organization 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."
Jim Powell wrote "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."
Penn's importance to America was great enough that President Ronald Reagan proclaimed him an honorary citizen, as one of "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."
In Powell's words, "Penn set an enormously important example for liberty. He showed that people who are courageous enough, persistent enough, and resourceful enough can live free ... how a free society would actually work." At a time when our freedoms have been increasingly crowded out by expanding government control, Penn's commitment to a free society needs rediscovery.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.