1701: Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties

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Source: Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).

61 [Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties]

The text is complete and as found in Thorpe, Federal and State Constitutions, 3076–81.


The 1682 Frame of Government [59], amplified by the Frame of 1683, was replaced by the 1696 Frame. The 1683 document is not reproduced in this collection because its changes were minor. The 1696 document is not reproduced because of its considerable length and essential redundancy with the 1682 document. The present document replaced the 1696 Frame and defined the Pennsylvania political system until 1776. One major difference vis à vis the 1682 Frame is the creation of a unicameral legislature. Eliminating the Council was part of the successful attempt by the freemen to eliminate the proprietor’s legislative veto. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 returned to two elected bodies, but the elected Council, instead of being an upper house, was part of the executive branch—effectively an elected privy council, which in this instance provided a means for the people to keep the executive branch under control. The document below is also notable for the care Penn takes in outlining its status with respect to earlier foundation documents in both England and America, thus establishing its pedigree and its legitimacy. Penn’s concern for liberty of conscience is again underlined—it is the first substantive matter addressed, and the guarantee of religious liberty is repeated at length later in the document. As with earlier Pennsylvania foundation documents, the Charter of Liberties was formulated by Penn and then consented to by the people or their elected representatives. That Penn consulted carefully with the Assembly while formulating his constitutions made popular acceptance a foregone conclusion.

Charter of Privileges Granted by William Penn, Esquire, to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania and Territories October 28, 1701

William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of the province of Pennsylvania and territories thereunto belonging, to all to whom these presents shall come, sends greeting.

Whereas King Charles the Second, by his letters patents under the great seal of England, bearing date the fourth day of March in the year one thousand six hundred and eighty-one, was graciously pleased to give and grant unto me and my heirs and assigns, forever, this province of Pennsylvania, with diverse great powers and jurisdictions for the well government thereof.

And whereas the King’s dearest brother, James Duke of York and Albany, etc., by his deeds of feoffment, under his hand and seal duly perfected, bearing date the twenty-fourth day of August, one thousand six hundred eighty and two, did grant unto me, my heirs and assigns, all that tract of land now called the territories of Pennsylvania, together with powers and jurisdictions for the good government thereof.

And whereas for the encouragement of all the freemen and planters that might be concerned in the said province and territories and for the good government thereof, I, the said William Penn, in the year one thousand six hundred eighty and three, for me, my heirs and assigns, did grant and confirm unto all the freemen, planters, and adventurers therein diverse liberties, franchises, and properties, as by the said grant, entitled, The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania, and Territories Thereunto Belonging, in America, may appear; which charter or frame, being found in some parts of it not so suitable to the present circumstances of the inhabitants, was in the third month in the year one thousand seven hundred delivered up to me, by six parts of seven of the freemen of this province and territories in General Assembly met, provision being made in the said charter for that end and purpose.

And whereas I was then pleased to promise that I would restore the said charter to them again with necessary alterations, or, in lieu thereof, give them another better adapted to answer the present circumstances and conditions of the said inhabitants; which they have now, by their representatives in General Assembly met at Philadelphia, requested me to grant.

Know you, therefore, that for the further well-being and good government of the said province and territories, and in pursuance of the rights and powers before mentioned, I, the said Wiliam Penn, do declare, grant, and confirm unto all the freemen, planters, and adventurers, and other inhabitants of this province and territories, these following liberties, franchises, and privileges, so far as in me lies, to be held, enjoyed, and kept by the freemen, planters, and adventurers, and other inhabitants of and in the said province and territories thereunto annexed, forever.


Because no people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of the freedom of their consciences as to their religious profession and worship. And Almighty God being the only lord of conscience, father of light and spirits, and the author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith, and worship, who only does enlighten the minds and persuade and convince the understandings of people, I do hereby grant and declare that no person or persons inhabiting in this province or territories, who shall confess and acknowledge one almighty God, the creator, upholder and ruler of the world; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the civil government, shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or estate because of his or their conscientious persuasion or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry contrary to his or their mind, or to do or suffer any other act or thing contrary to their religious persuasion.

And that all persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, shall be capable, notwithstanding their other persuasions and practices in point of conscience and religion, to serve this government in any capacity, both legislatively and executively, he or they solemnly promising, when lawfully required, allegiance to the King as sovereign and fidelity to the proprietary and Governor, and taking the attests as now established by the laws made at Newcastle, in the year one thousand and seven hundred, entitled An Act Directing the Attests of Several Officers and Ministers, as now amended and confirmed this present Assembly.


For the well-governing of this province and territories there shall be an Assembly yearly chosen by the freemen thereof, to consist of four persons out of each county, of most note for virtue, wisdom, and ability, or of a greater number at any time as the Governor and assembly shall agree, upon the first day of October, forever; and shall sit on the fourteenth day of the same month at Philadelphia, unless the Governor and Council for the time being shall see cause to appoint another place within the said province or territories. Which Assembly shall have power to choose a speaker and other their officers and shall be judges of the qualifications and elections of their own members, sit upon their own adjournments, appoint committees, prepare bills in order to pass into laws, impeach criminals and redress grievances, and shall have all other powers and privileges of an Assembly, according to the rights of the freeborn subjects of England and as is usual in any of the King’s plantations in America.

And if any county or counties shall refuse or neglect to choose their respective representatives, as aforesaid, or, if chosen, do not meet to serve in Assembly, those who are so chosen and met shall have the full power of an Assembly, in as ample manner as if all the representatives had been chosen and met, provided they are not less than two-thirds of the whole number that ought to meet.

And that the qualifications of electors and elected, and all other matters and things relating to elections of representatives to serve in Assemblies, though not herein particularly expressed, shall be and remain as by a law of this government made at Newcastle in the year one thousand seven hundred entitled, An Act to Ascertain the Number of Members of Assembly and to Regulate the Elections.


That the freemen in each respective county, at the time and place of meeting for electing their representatives to serve in Assembly, may, as often as there shall be occasion, choose a double number of persons to present to the Governor for sheriffs and coroners to serve for three years, if so long they behave themselves well. Out of which respective elections and presentments the Governor shall nominate and commissionate one for each of the said offices, the third day after such presentment, or else the first named in such presentment for each office, as aforesaid, shall stand and serve in that office for the time before respectively limited; and in case of death or default, such vacancies shall be supplied by the Governor to serve to the end of the said term.

Provided always, that if the said freeman shall at any time neglect or decline to choose a person or persons for either or both of the aforesaid offices, then and in such case the persons that are or shall be in the respective offices of sheriffs or coroners, at the time of election, shall remain therein until they be removed by another election, as aforesaid.


That the laws of this government shall be in this style, viz., By the Governor, with the consent and approbation of the Freemen of the General Assembly met; and shall be, after confirmation by the Governor, forthwith recorded in the Rolls Offices and kept at Philadelphia, unless the Governor and Assembly shall agree to appoint another place.


That all criminals shall have the same privileges of witnesses and counsel as their prosecuters.


That no person or persons shall or may, at any time hereafter, be obliged to answer any complaint, matter, or thing, whatsoever relating to property, before the Governor and Council or in any other place, but in ordinary course of justice, unless appeals thereunto shall be hereafter by law appointed.


That no person within this government shall be licensed by the Governor to keep an ordinary, tavern, or house of public entertainment, but such who are first recommended to him under the hands of the justices of the respective counties, signed in open court. Which justices are and shall be hereby empowered to supress and forbid any person keeping such public house, as aforesaid, upon their misbehavior, on such penalties as the law does or shall direct; and to recommend others from time to time as they shall see occasion.


If any person, through temptation or melancholy, shall destroy himself, his estate, real and personal, shall, notwithstanding, descend to his wife and children or relations as if he had died a natural death; and if any person shall be destroyed or killed by casualty or accident, there shall be no forfeiture to the Governor by reason thereof.

And no act, law, or ordinance whatsoever shall at any time hereafter be made or done to alter, change, or diminish the form or effect of this charter, or of any part or clause therein, contrary to the true intent and meaning thereof, without the consent of the Governor for the time being and six parts of seven of the Assembly met.

But because the happiness of mankind depends so much upon the enjoying of liberty of their consciences, as aforesaid, I do hereby solemnly declare, promise, and grant, for me, my heirs and assigns, that the first article of this charter relating to liberty of conscience, and every part and clause therein, according to the true intent and meaning thereof, shall be kept and remain without any alteration, inviolably forever.

And lastly, I, the said William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of the province of Pennsylvania and territories thereunto belonging, for myself, my heirs and assigns, have solemnly declared, granted, and confirmed, and do hereby solemnly declare, grant, and confirm, that neither I, my heirs or assigns, shall procure or do anything or things whereby the liberties in this charter contained and expressed, nor any part thereof, shall be infringed or broken. And if anything shall be procured or done by any person or persons contrary to these presents, it shall be held of no force or effect.

In witness whereof, I, the said William Penn, at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, have unto this present charter of liberties, set my hand and broad seal, this twenty-eighth day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and one, being the thirteenth year of the reign of King William the Third, over England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, etc., and the twenty-first year of my government.

And notwithstanding the closure and test of this present charter, as aforesaid, I think fit to add this following proviso thereunto, as part of the same, that is to say, that, notwithstanding any clause or clauses in the abovementioned charter obliging the province and territories to join together in legislation, I am content and do hereby declare that if the representatives of the province and territories shall not hereafter agree to join together in legislation, and if the same shall be signified unto me or my Deputy in open Assembly, or otherwise from under the hands and seals of the representatives, for the time being, of the province and territories, or the major part of either of them, at any time within three years from the date hereof, that in such case the inhabitants of each of the three counties of this province shall not have less than eight persons to represent them in Assembly for the province; and the inhabitants of the town of Philadelphia, when the said town is incorporated, two persons to represent them in Assembly for the province; and the inhabitants of each county in the territories shall have as many persons to represent them in a distinct Assembly for the territories, as shall by them requested as aforesaid.

Notwithstanding which separation of the province and territories, in respect of legislation I do hereby promise, grant, and declare that the inhabitants of both province and territories shall separately enjoy all other liberties, privileges, and benefits, granted jointly to them in this charter, any law, usage or custom of that government heretofore made and practiced, or any law made and passed by this General Assembly, to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.

William Penn

The charter of privileges being distinctly read in Assembly, and the whole and every part thereof being approved and agreed to by us, we do thankfully receive the same from our proprietary and Governor, at Philadelphia, this twenty-eighth day of October, one thousand seven hundred and one. Signed on behalf and by order of the Assembly.

Per Joseph Growden


Edward Shippen Griffith Owen
Phineas Pemberton Caleb Pusey
Samuel Carpenter Thomas Story
Proprietary and Governor’s Council


Orders Devised and Published by the House of Assembly to be Observed During the Assembly

The text is complete and with the spelling found in W. H. Browne et al., eds., Archives of Maryland: Vol. i, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, January, 1637/8–September, 1664 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1883), 32–33.

February 25, 1638

One of the core commitments in American political thought is to a political process that is highly deliberative. To a certain extent the English commitment to rule of law lay behind colonial decision making processes, as well as the pragmatic belief that several heads are better than one; however, the extraordinary care the colonists took in this regard (see Fundamental Articles of New Haven [46] for a good example) also resulted from another influence. The theological perspective dominant in the American colonies held that as a result of original sin humans could see only “as through a glass darkly,” because sinful pride and self-interest tended to cloud individual judgment. The belief in a fallen human nature plus the commitment to seeking the common good led colonists to rely more heavily than most peoples on public discussions structured so as to minimize passion, self-interest, and incomplete information. The inclination toward open public records, as well as toward open political gatherings, is a reflection of the colonial commitment to a deliberative process. The document below is one of several examples surviving from seventeenth-century colonial America that illustrate the concern for calm, open, fair, and orderly processes during collective decision making. It is perhaps no accident that the behavior elicited tended to resemble that found in church.

The Lieutenant General shall be called President of the Assembly and shall appoint & direct all things that Concern Form and decency to be used in the house and shall Command Observance thereof as he shall see Cause upon pain of imprisonment or fine as the house shall take Precedence according to this Order.

When any one of the house is to speak to any Bill he shall stand up and be Bareheaded and direct his speech to the President only and if two or more stand up together the President shall appoint who shall speak.

No man shall stand up to speak to any Bill until the party that last spake have sat down nor shall any One refute another with any nipping or vncivill terms nor shall name another but by some Circumloquation as the Gentleman or Burgess that spake last or that argued for or against this Bill or the Bill

The house shall sit every day holy days excepted unless it be adjourned at eight of the Clock in the morning at the furthest and at two of the Clock in the afternoon & if any Gentlemen or Burgess not appearing upon call at such time as the President is set at or after either of the said hours shall be amerced 20lb of Tobacco to be forthwth paid to the use of the house

After any Bill hath been once read in the house the Bill shall be read ingrossed or utterly rejected and upon any day or day appointed for a Session all Bills engrossed shall be put to the question and such as are assented to by the Greater part of the house and if the Votes be equal that shall be judged the Greater part which hath the Consent of the Lieutenant General shall be undersigned by the Secretary in these words [“]the freemen have assented[”] and after that the President shall be demanded his assent in the name of the Lord proprietary and if his assent be to the Bill, the Bill shall be undersigned by the said Secretary in these words [“]the Lord Proprietary willeth that this be a Law[”]