by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
It was August, 1670. Charles the II wanted William Penn found guilty and executed. Penn was 26.
This was a hinge moment for American history, inspiring people yet unborn because they remembered. The Trial of William Penn, his co-defendant William Mead is generally overlooked, were caught preaching their Quaker beliefs at Gracechurch Street in London to more than five people, in violation of the King's Law.
Charles, who had endured years of exile before regaining the throne at the death of Cromwell, wanted no more of these dangerous ideas about freedom of religion circulating in his realm. The court was ordered to handle the matter.
The trial came to an unexpected resolution, establishing the principle of jury nullification in English law.
Edward Bushnell, a wealthy man who owned a shipping enterprise, served as foreman. As the jury listened, Penn spoke out, demanding to be heard, see the charges laid against him, and be allowed to question his accusers. These rights, guaranteed in common law, were denied him. The court watched as Penn was gagged and consigned to a corner of the courtroom.
Bushnell and three fellow jurors, as Englishmen, considered both the facts and the justice of the charges being made.
These four members of the jury refused to find the accused men guilty. The outraged judge promptly ordered them locked up 'in the hole,' of Newgate Prison, and denied, “victuals, drink, and tobacco,” for nine weeks. They were tortured and threatened with large fines. After fighting their incarceration from jail with a Writ of Habeas Corpus they were released, emerging soaked in urine and smeared with feces.
Penn and Mead walked free. Penn took ship for Germany, continuing, with other Quakers, to work for a new vision for humanity. Penn's work in the New World included free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections.
In 1681 King Charles ceded the land, now Pennsylvania, to Penn to clear the debt still owed to Penn's father.
More than a century later, this work would inspire the representatives who signed the Declaration of Independence, and those who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Our Nation was built from the ideas and actions of individuals, like Bushnell and his fellow jurors, who faced battles in life. Some fight in war, but many of the most important conflicts are determined on the battlefield of conscience.