We are used to thinking of William Penn as a pudgy, humorless, conservative Quaker, as so he was in his later years. But, like many of us, he was very different in his youth.
The young William Penn was constantly getting in trouble in England, despite, or more likely because of, his father’s prestige as an admiral and Member of Parliament. He was the typical military brat, rebelling against society in any way he could. He was expelled from Oxford, cast out of his father’s home, and arrested several times, but one important charge eventually brought reform of the judicial system itself.
Penn, 26, deliberately tested a law against assembly by preaching in a London street with a fellow Quaker and was promptly arrested. Preaching anywhere but in the Church of England was prohibited, and he was obviously preaching to someone, so, as he expected, he was also charged with illegal assembly.
The trial went downhill quickly. As usual in criminal cases then, Penn was not allowed council. When he demanded to see the charges as guaranteed by law, the judge simply refused, then directed the jury to give a verdict without hearing the defense. (A defendant was almost always found guilty under this system.)
Penn argued forcefully, so forcefully, they placed him in a cage below floor level where he could still be heard, but not seen.
The jury ruled Penn guilty of the preaching, but not guilty of assembly. The judge thought this was illogical and rejected their verdict, telling them, “Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till you bring in a verdict which the court will accept. 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.”
When they still refused after a few days, he abruptly ended the trial, charged the jury and William Penn with contempt of court, jailed them all again, and even fined the jury a year’s wages.
What followed is known as the Bushel’s Case after Edward Bushel, the foreman of the jury who refused to pay the fine. The result was the ruling that juries are free to interpret the law however they please without intimidation, even to ignore it if they so wish. In other words, a jury’s judgment is above the law. The law may be perfectly clear, guilt proved beyond doubt, but the jury can still find the defendant not guilty simply because they do not like the law. That is still the principle of our juries today.
After William Penn’s father died, King Charles II gave the young Penn a parcel of land in America to satisfy a debt to William’s father. William called the land “Sylvania,” which the king changed to “Pennsylvania” on the charter in honor of the father. There has been some confusion because William’s father, the Admiral, was also named William, but one thing is certain—Pennsylvania is not named after the son whose statue is atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. When Cromwell died, it was Admiral Penn who led a secret mission to bring Charles II back from exile. The king knighted the Admiral for his service, which would have been on his mind when signing the charter, but he barely knew his bratty son. The king would not have given the son a second thought when attaching “Penn” onto “Sylvania.”
(Thanks to Dave Hall for pointing out the special angle to photograph Penn’s statue atop City Hall.)