Penn's Charter of Liberties

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The Charter of Liberties was drawn up by the pennsylvania Legislature and approved by William penn, proprietor of the colony. It was the culmination of enlightened progress toward securing personal freedoms against a capricious proprietor and crown, and served as the constitution of Pennsylvania from 1701 to 1776. Its most notable features were the establishment of a popular assembly with the right to initiate legislation and the affording of persons accused of crimes the right to counsel. It was not until 1836 that English law gave the defendant an absolute right to counsel in all cases.

Background. The charter that King Charles II gave to William Penn in 1681 made him the absolute proprietor of the area in America where Penn was to establish a colony. The crown did, however, reserve to itself certain rights, including that of approving or disallowing acts passed by the General Assembly. Penn's first plan of government, the Fundamental Constitutions of Pennsylvania, granted freedom of conscience and provided for an Assembly with privileges like those of the House of Commons. Some of Penn's ideas failed to please prospective land buyers, and he modified them somewhat.

A new Frame of Government, issued in 1682, gave freemen the right to elect members to both the Council and the Assemblya departure from the usual practice of having the upper house or council appointed. But the Assembly could not initiate legislation. Another Frame of Government, reducing the size of the Council and the Assembly, was issued in 1683 while Penn was in Pennsylvania. After Penn returned to England to defend his rights, his deputy governor, William Markham, issued a new Frame of Governement in 1696. The Assembly approved this, but Penn never gave his consent, and the law could not be considered as binding. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1700, Penn advised the colonists to change the Frame of Government, if it did not suit them. The Council studied the Frames of Government of 1683 and 1696, took what was best in each and presented the results to Penn for his approval. On Oct. 28, 1701, Penn gave his consent. The required six-sevenths of both houses voted to replace the Frame of Government of 1683 with the new Charter of Liberties, and on Nov. 8, 1701, it became the constitution of Pennsylvania.

Provisions. In this charter Penn granted and confirmed to "all the Freemen, Planters and Adventurers, and other Inhabitants of this Province and Territories, these following Liberties, Franchises and Privileges," to be kept and enjoyed by them forever. Liberty of conscience was guaranteed to all who acknowledged one almighty God, the creator, ruler, and upholder of the world. Those who professed to believe in Christ were eligible for service in any legislative or executive capacity, providing they solemnly promised allegiance to the king, fidelity to the proprietor and governor, and took the attests established by law.

Each October freemen of the colony were to choose four persons from each county for the Assembly that would meet in Philadelphia two weeks later. The Assembly had the power to choose a speaker, appoint committees, prepare bills, decide on adjournment, impeach criminals, and redress grievances. It also had "all other Power and Privileges of an Assembly, according to the Rights of the free-born Subjects of England, and as is usual in any of the King's Plantations in America." If a county refused to choose representatives, or if those chosen refused to serve, the rest of the properly chosen delegates meeting together had the full power of the Assembly, providing that two-thirds of the whole body was present.

The freemen also nominated two men for sheriff and two for coroner. The governor then chose one man for each office, and those men selected served three years. In the case of death or default, the governor filled the vacancies until the end of the term. If the freemen failed to choose candidates for these posts, the incumbents remained in office until a new election was held. Justices of the counties nominated three persons for the position of clerk of the peace, and the governor appointed one of these to serve during his good behavior.

Other parts of the charter dealt with the recording and preservation of laws; the giving to criminals the privileges of counsel and of calling witnesses; the safeguarding of a citizen's property from actions by the governor and Council, except in the ordinary course of justice; the preventing of the forfeiture of property in the event of suicide or death by accident; and the licensing of taverns and public houses.

The charter could not be amended in whole or in part except by the consent of the governor and six-sevenths of the Assembly. The one exception to this was the article on liberty of conscience, which was so basic to the true intent of the charter that it must be kept forever without alteration. Penn promised on behalf of himself and his heirs to do nothing that would impair the liberties expressed in the charter.

Bibliography: r. l. perry, ed. Sources of Our Liberties (Chicago, Ill. 1959). e. b. bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 16811701 (New York 1962). c. o. peare, William Penn: A Biography (Philadelphia, Pa. 1957). w. i. hull, William Penn: A Topical Biography (New York 1937).

[h. d. langley]