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William Penn on property as one of the three fundamental rights all men have (1679)

The Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) argued in 1679 for the recognition of three fundamental rights that all Englishmen have: 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:

The First of these Three Fundamentals is Property, that is, Right and Title to your own Lives, Liberties and Estates: In this, every Man is a Sort of Little Soveraign to himself: No Man has Power over his Person, to Imprison or hurt it, or over his Estate to Invade or Usurp it: Only your own Transgression of the Laws, (and those of your own making too) lays you open to Loss; which is but the Punishment due to your Offences, and this but in Proportion to the Fault committed. So that the Power of England is a Legal Power, which truly merits the Name of Government. That which is not Legal, is a Tyranny, and not properly a Government. Now the Law is Umpire between King, Lords and Commons, and the Right and Property is One in Kind through all Degrees and Qualities in the Kingdom: Mark that.

ENGLAND’s Great Interest, in the Choice of this New Parliament Dedicated to All Her Free-Holders and Electors (1679)

We, the Commons of England, are a great Part of the Fundamental Government of it; and Three Rights are so peculiar and inherent to us, that if we will not throw them away for Fear or Favour, for Meat and Drink, or those other little present Profits, that Ill Men offer to tempt us with, they cannot be altered or abrogated. 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 turn Slaves to the Humours of those, that properly and truly are but your Servants, and ought to be used so.

The First of these Three Fundamentals is Property, that is, Right and Title to your own Lives, Liberties and Estates: In this, every Man is a Sort of Little Soveraign to himself: No Man has Power over his Person, to Imprison or hurt it, or over his Estate to Invade or Usurp it: Only your own Transgression of the Laws, (and those of your own making too) lays you open to Loss; which is but the Punishment due to your Offences, and this but in Proportion to the Fault committed. So that the Power of England is a Legal Power, which truly merits the Name of Government. That which is not Legal, is a Tyranny, and not properly a Government. Now the Law is Umpire between King, Lords and Commons, and the Right and Property is One in Kind through all Degrees and Qualities in the Kingdom: Mark that.

The Second Fundamental, that is, your Birthright and Inheritance, is Legislation, or the Power of making Laws; No Law can be made or abrogated in England without you. Before Henry the Third’s Time, your Ancestors, the Freemen of England, met in their own Persons, but their Numbers much increasing, the Vastness of them, and the Confusion that must needs attend them, making such Assemblies not practicable for Business, this Way of Representatives was first pitch’d upon as an Expedient, both to Maintain the Common Right, and to avoid the Confusion of those mighty Numbers. So that now, as well as then, No Law can be made, no Money Levied, nor a Penny Legally Demanded (even to defray the Charges of the Government) without your own Consent: Than which, tell me, what can be Freer, or what more Secure to any People?

Your Third Great Fundamental Right and Priviledge is Executive, and holds Proportion with the other Two, in Order to compleat both your Freedom and Security, and that is, Your Share in the Judicatory Power, in the Execution and Application of those Laws, that you agree to be made. Insomuch as No Man, according to the Ancient Laws of this Realm, can be adjudg’d in Matter of Life, Liberty, or Estate, but it must be by the Judgment of His Peers, that is, Twelve Men of the Neighbourhood, commonly called a JURY; though this hath been infringed by Two Acts, made in the late Long Parliament, One against the Quakers in Particular, and the Other against Dissenters in General, called, An Act against Seditious Conventicles, where Persons are adjudged Offenders, and Punishable without a Jury; which, ’tis hoped, this ensuing Parliament will think fit in their Wisdom to Repeal, though with less Severity, than one of the same Nature (as to punishing Men without Juries) was by Henry the Eighth, who, for Executing of it, Hang’d Empson and Dudley.

Consider with your selves, that there is nothing more your Interest, than for you to understand your Right in the Government, and to be constantly Jealous over it; for your Well-Being depends upon it’s Preservation.

About this Quotation:

William Penn was a religious dissident who spent time in prison for his opposition to the way Quakers were treated by the state during the 1670s. As the owner and founder of what was to become Pennsylvania he was in a good position to put his religious and political principles into practice when drawing up a constitution or “Frame of Government” in 1681. This petition written in 1679 shows the direction his ideas were taking in the years immediately preceding this. Penn believed in the idea that Englishmen had rights which predated the coming to power of any king and it was their duty to insist that they be recognized when kings overstepped their powers which had happened repeatedly after the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. In the opening to this statement Penn mentions Three Fundamental Rights, namely property, making the laws, and being judged by juries for transgressions of those laws. The danger however was that the people had forgotten what their rights were and so Penn wanted to remind them “lest through Ignorance of your own Strength and Authority, you turn Slaves to the Humours of those, that properly and truly are but your Servants, and ought to be used so.” As Penn rightly says at the end of the paragraph, “Mark that”!

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