England's Present Interest Considered

"England's Present Interest Considered, with honour to the prince and safety to the people, in answer to this one question: what is most fit, easy and safe, at this juncture of affairs, to be done for quieting of differences, allaying the heat of contrary interests, and making them subservient to the interests of government, and consistent with prosperity of the kingdom?"

by William Penn (1675), as summarized by Samuel Janney (The Life of William Penn, 1882) [this page is quoted word for word from Janney]

Penn offers many weighty considerations of a political nature to show the ncessity of toleration. In this work Penn traces the history and progress of civil liberty in England from the earliest times, showing that it existed long before the Reformation, and had no necessary connection with the established church. Those rights and privileges which he terms English, and which are the birthrights of Englishmen may be reduced to three:

1. An ownership, and undisturbed possession of property.

2. A voting of every law that is made, whereby that ownership may be maintained.

3. An influence upon, and real share in that judiciary power that must apply every such law, which is the ancient, necessary and laudable use of juries.

Penn: "The first of these rights relates to security of estate and liberty of person from the violence of arbitrary power." It was not unknown to the ancient Britons; was established among the Saxons, who were a free people, governed by laws of which they themselves were the makers, and it was acknowledged by the Norman Conqueror, who made a covenant "to maintain the good, approved, and ancient laws of this kingdom, and to inhibit all spoil and unjust judgement."

The second of these privileges he proves to be of ancient date, for the Britons had their "council," the Saxons their "wittangemote" or parliament, and William the Conqueror in his laws refers to the "Common Council of the whole kingdom" as acting with him.

The third privilege was well established among the Saxons; for in the laws of King Ethelred, three hundred years before the entrance of the Norman Duke, it is said, "In every hundred let there be a court, and let twelve ancient freemen, together with the lord of the hundred, be sworn that they will not condemn the innocent nor acquit the guilty." This privilege was also acknowledged under the Norman kings.

Hence he concludes that the Great Charter, made in the ninth of Henry III., was not the nativity but restoration of ancient privileges from abuses. No grant of new rights, but a new grant, or confirmation rather, of ancient laws and liberties, violated by King John and restored by his successor at the expense of a long and bloody war, which showed them as resolute to keep as their ancestors had been careful to make those excellent laws.

He the refers to the provisions of the Magna Carta, by which these privileges were secured to the freemen of England, and shows that these fundamental principles are binding on the Parliament as well as the King, for the representatives of the people have no right to encroach on their liberties.

He lays down these great principles: That no man in England is born slave to another, neither hath one a right to inherit the sweat of the other's brow, or reap the benefit of his labour but by consent; therefore no man should be deprived of property unless he injure another man's, and then by legal judgement. But certainly nothing is more unreasonable than to sacrifice the liberty and property of any man for religion, when he is not found to be breaking any law relating to natural and civil things.

"Religion, under any modification, is no part of the old English government. A man may be a very good Englishman, and yet a very indifferent churchman.

"Nigh 300 years before Austin set his foot on English ground, had the inhabitants of this island a free government." It is want of distingishing between it and the modes of religion which fills every clamorous mouth with such impertinent cries as this, "Why do not you submit to the government? As if the English civil government came in with Luther, or were to go out with Calvin. What prejudice is it for a Popish landlord to have a Protestant tenant, or a Presbyterian tenant to have an Episcopalian landlord? Certainly the civil affairs of all governments in the world may be peaceably transacted under the different liveries or trims of religion, where civil rights are inviolably observed."

He then proceeds to maintain a sentiment far in advance of that age, which is this: that so far from a government being weakened or endangered by a variety of religious sentiments, it is, on the contray, strengthened by them, provided that all are equally tolerated, for it prevents combinations against the government; and he quotes from Livy to show that "Hannibal's army, which for thirteen years roved up and down the Roman empire, was made up of many countries, yet under all their successes of war and peace they never mutinied."

The last chapter of this work treats of general and practical religion. He say, "No one thing is more unaccountable and condemnable among men than their uncharitable contests about religion, indeed, about words and phrases, while they all verbally meet in the most, if not only, necessary part of the Christian religion; for nothing is more certain, than that if men would but live up to one-half of what they know in their consciences they ought to practise, their edge would be taken off, their blood would be sweetened by mercy and truth, and this unnatural sharpness qualified. They would quickly find work enough at home; each man's hands would be full by the unruliness of his own passions and in subjecting his own will, instead of devouring one another's good name, liberty or estate: compassion would rise, and mutual desires to be assistant to each other in a better sort of living. Oh! how delightful it would be to see mankind, the creation of one God, that hath upheld them to this day, of one accord, at least in the weighty things of God's holy law."

In this conclusion of this excellent treatise he draws this corrollary: that the way to quiet differences and promote the public interest is, 1st, To maintain inviolably the rights of liberty and property; 2d. That the Prince govern himself upon a balance toward all religious interests; and Lastly, That minor differences be overlooked and practical religion promoted.

Information on this page provided by James Quinn. Visit Gwynedd (Pennsylvania) Friends Meeting.