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the body from disintegration by either atomizing or domineering forces from
within and to be a refuge from coercive powers from without, such as the
Roman Church. Safety in union meant liberty; and union would be preserved
through religious liberty.46 Everyone must agree to unite, not on the basis
of one imposed understanding of religion, but on the basis of their all being
Protestant dissenters. And as dissenters, they must avoid popery by securing
the one means “ liberty of conscience “ that would allow people to ¬nd the true
religion. Unlike most republican thinkers who believed that political opinion
must be homogenous, Penn argued that “Unity (not as the least but greatest
End of Government) is lost for by seeking an Unity of Opinion (by [coercion])

42 Ibid., 5. See also Andrew R. Murphy, Conscience and Community.
43 Penn, First Frame, 212.
44 We should understand that there is really no equivalent in the ecclesiastical polity of this lower
civil principle. As Barclay made clear in The Anarchy of the Ranters, the church government
had the power to extend positive law to regulate the conscience of the believer (47“65, 73).
45 Penn, One Project, 1.
46 This equation of union, security, and religious liberty by Quakers complicates John Phillip
Reid™s discussion of liberty and security. He ¬nds, convincingly, that the concepts of liberty and
security of property were interchangeable. But while Quakers shared this concern for protection
for property, and also related it to liberty in the ways Reid argues, it is not clear that this was
their only or primary understanding of the concepts of liberty and security. It seems, rather, that
union was held above property as the guarantor of liberty, and religious liberty was, in turn,
the guarantor of union. Property, as is discussed later, was primarily a tool for proselytization.
See John Phillip Reid, The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1988), 71“73.
76 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

the Unity requisite to uphold us, as a Civil Society, will be quite destroy™d.
And such as relinquish that, to get the other (besides that they are Unwise) will
infallibly lose both in the end.”47
The image one gets of Penn™s ideal political society is one in which individu-
als might, as he did, stand on the street corner hawking their religious wares. If
the Truth is allowed expression, he believed, the people will ¬nd their way to it.
In this way, Quakers had a view of politics and civic engagement that approxi-
mated modern understandings. They did not believe, as did many Englishmen,
that political differences and potential con¬‚ict were inevitably problematic.
Similar to Machiavelli, theirs was rather a philosophy “ religious and political “
that depended on an amount of disagreement, dissent, and competition of ideas
in order to ¬‚ourish, so long as there was always the fundamental agreement
that the unity of the body was paramount. In their way, Quakers promoted
debate, deliberation, and the search for truth among the people at a time when
many did not believe that popular discourse was possible or relevant.48
While the Quaker idea of toleration seems to be similar, if not identical to
Locke™s, their ideas are distinct on two levels.49 First, as we have seen, the
bases are different in that Locke expected that man should resort to his reason
as a means to political virtue (to the extent that virtue was necessary), and
thus leave his religion at the door to the state house. Quakers, by contrast,
expected that freedom to worship would bring man closer to God and thus
make his civil behavior an expression of Christian love. Second, although
their conceptions of toleration looked much the same in theory, they could
be quite different in practice. Locke asserted that the civil government had no
role in coercing the conscience of the individual. He also granted, as did all
Englishmen, that “obedience is due in the ¬rst place to God, and afterwards
to the laws” and that disobedience was acceptable if the civil government
tried to force the conscience.50 But for Locke, there were limits to toleration
that potentially con¬‚icted with Quaker thought and practice. In his Letter

47 Penn, Great Case, 29. For one of the best succinct discussions of Penn™s ideas of religious liberty,
see Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude,” 12“35. For a longer discussion, with which this study
sometimes disagrees, see J. William Frost, A Perfect Freedom: Religious Liberty in Pennsylvania
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). On the issue of toleration as modus vivendi
and the subject of toleration in general reconsidered in historical and contemporary context,
see Murphy, Conscience and Community.
48 This is also Alan Tully™s argument in Forming American Politics about the main contribution
of Quakers to American political culture. He ¬nds that their mode of political engagement
in Pennsylvania with its contentious partisanship was the precursor of the First Party System.
Seventeenth-century Trimmers were another group that anticipated the modern idea of politics
as a forum for disagreement. See James Conniff, “The Politics of Trimming: Halifax and the
Acceptance of Political Controversy,” The Journal of Politics vol. 34, no. 4 (1972), 1172“1202.
49 It is necessary here to make a distinction between religious toleration and religious liberty.
Although the two terms are often used interchangeably today, as the following discussing
demonstrates, the ¬rst is more limited than the latter. In their advocacy of religious rights,
Quakers often settled temporarily for toleration even as they continued to press for liberty.
50 John Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration (London, 1689), 61.
Quaker Theory of a Civil Government 77

concerning Toleration (1689), he discussed four grounds on which toleration
should be suspended: beliefs or practices that con¬‚ict with the civil peace;
violation of civil oaths; the idea that political power was based on grace; and
if the faith encouraged loyalty to a foreign government.51 But Quakers de¬ned
the realm of conscience and faith to include civil, ecclesiastical, and social
institutions and customs. They were seeking not mere toleration, but liberty.
With their radical and public expressions of dissent, it is clear how critics could
argue that their behavior con¬‚icted with matters purely civil or social. At one
time or another they were accused of transgressing each of Locke™s articles,
in which case, they had “no right to be tolerated by the magistrate.”52 Locke
believed that Quakers were one of the sorts of antinomians who inappropriately
mixed religion and politics.
Once a people has come together under this lower principle of civil inter-
est, they must discern and codify the fundamental law into a written doc-
ument. The constitution was an expression of God™s law. The Magna Carta,
explained Penn, is “not the Original Establishment, but a Declaration and Con-
¬rmation of that Establishment.”53 This language clearly re¬‚ects the Quakers™
understanding that a civil constitution is in its way like Scripture, which they
described as “a Declaration of the Fountain but not the Fountain it self,” or
like their Discipline, the paper constitution that followed the assembly of the
religious body.54 Moreover, the constitution, like Scripture or the Discipline,
is not man-made in the usual sense of the term. It was a collaboration between
God and man.
Although Penn advised his children not to be “meddlers in Government,”
if he meant to convey an image of quietism, it was likely part of the Quakers™
campaign to dispel perceptions of them as seditious and destructive of civil
government. But Penn quali¬ed his statement, saying that man should not work
in government “Unless God requires it of you.”55 And what God sometimes
required of man was that he act as a vehicle for the transmission of his law
to the rest of mankind.56 A civil constitution, then, was not man-made per
se, but was rather created by God and then discerned through synteresis and
transcribed by men.57 It was like any other divinely ordained guide executed by
man such as the Scriptures, apostolic precedent, or legal precedent that was in
keeping with the spirit of the divine law. Moreover, because it came from God,

51 Ibid., esp. 62“67.
52 Locke, Letter concerning Toleration, 65.
53 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 29.
54 Barclay, Apology, 5
55 William Penn quoted in Isaac Sharpless, Quakerism and Politics (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach,
1905), 79.
56 Beatty would agree with this interpretation. “A Quaker,” he says, “could believe in God as the
source of society and in the human race as the means chosen by Divinity to work out his plans”
(William Penn as Social Philosopher, 20).
57 See Zuckert on government as a man-made artifact (Natural Rights, 9“10).
78 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

it was sacred. There was, therefore, a powerful sense of political obligation for

Political Arrangements
Another basis for political obligation was in the structural arrangements dic-
tated by the civil constitution. In Quaker thought, the fundamental law came
directly from God, who ordained both a written constitution and civil govern-
ment. The political arrangements “ the “order” (the structure of government)
and the “method” (the decision-making process) “ were also ordained as part
of the constitution. If liberty was safety, safety came through the order and
method of government. At ¬rst glance, because of discrepancies between early
theory and practice, it appears uncertain what form of government Quakers
preferred. In the preface to his First Frame, Penn was intentionally vague on
this topic, writing “For particular Frames and Models, it will become me to
say little; and comparatively I will say nothing.” His reasons were several, but
the most important were that the age was “too nice and dif¬cult” and that
while all agreed that happiness was the end of government, most people did
not know the right way to use “Light and Knowledge” to achieve that end.
Quakers themselves wrangled about this issue amongst themselves for several
decades as governors of their own colonies. But all things considered, from the
Quakers™ theory, their own frames of government, and their actual political
arrangements, it is clear that most Friends would eventually agree that there
was one true way in which government should be structured. “Any Govern-
ment is Free to the People under it (what-ever be the Frame) where the Laws
Rule,” wrote Penn, “and the People are a party to those Laws.”58
Early in his thinking, Quaker political theorist Isaac Penington began to hint
about the ideal form of government. Like Penn, his future son-in-law, Penington
favored a strong central government for the sake of unity. In 1653 he articulated
something that sounds much like Plato™s theory of divine competence.59 If there
existed a single ruler who embodied divine will and exercised his power in strict
keeping with God™s law, this would be the best form of rule “ a benevolent
despotism. Penington tentatively agreed that “Absoluteness is best in itself.”
But because no such individual existed, “limitations are safest for the present
condition of man.” Likely with both the divine right of kings and the chaos
of the Interregnum in mind, however, he continued, “[b]ut what if God (from
whom both these had their being, continuation and blessing) be striking at
the root of both Absoluteness and Limitedness, shewing the weakness and
insuf¬ciency of both, and turning them upside down as fast as he discovereth
it?” Penington did not venture a direct answer. Because God had not spoken
to him on these matters, he desired rather “to be silent . . . not only outwardly

58 Penn, First Frame, 213.
59 J. B. Skemp, trans., Statesman: A Translation of the Politicus of Plato (New Haven, CT: Yale,
1952). See also McIlwain, Constitutionalism, 50.
Quaker Theory of a Civil Government 79

before men, but even inwardly in mine own Soul.” But he did offer some
advice to the governors and the governed that gives us a hint of his ideas. “The
governor,” he counseled, needs to remain humble and not “bring forth that
which is not in them.” In the recent revolution, it was Parliament, he said, that
“seemed to spring up with a more excellent spirit, undertaking to rectify that
which was crooked in the foregoing Government, but did they indeed and in
truth effect it?” Penington™s advice to the governed then was “[e]xpect not that
fruit from your Governors, the root whereof is not in them.” Neither, recent
history suggested, should the people look to themselves alone because their
own limits might be faulty “(for man himself knoweth neither his own heart
nor ways, seldom being what he still taketh himself to be).” They should look
elsewhere. “He who is of counsel with the Lord, may know what he intends.”60
This is to say, whether absolute or limited, government by man instead of by
God is always corrupt and oppressive.
A strong central government might come in many forms, but for Quakers
it seems, one was preferable. In most Quaker thought, the strength did not
arise from the top of the political authority structure “ from an executive or
a parliament. Contrary to the usual understanding of divine right theory that
placed right in the hands of a king and obligation on the people, “The Funda-
mental Right, Liberty and Safety of the People,” said Penington, “is radically
in themselves, derivatively in Parliament, their Substitutes or Representatives.”
He wrote these lines some thirty years before Sidney wrote the same in his
Discourses concerning Government (1698), the “textbook” to the American
Revolutionaries.61 This right, safety, and liberty “lieth chie¬‚y in these three
things,” wrote Penington, “in their Choyce of their Government and Gover-
nors, in the Establishment of that Government and those Governors which
they shall chuse, and in the Alteration of either as they ¬nd cause.”62 The last
point is an important one, and one to which we will return in a moment. Penn
agreed in 1675 that “the People” must have “a Share in Judgment, that is, in
the Application, as well as in the making of the Law.”63 He explained that the
English people had at once time exercised a direct control over the government
and had themselves handed it over to their representatives when the population
grew too large.64 In a clear equation of political practices with those of his reli-
gion, he tacitly accused the government of popery because it had divested the
people of their rightful power, lodging it instead with the representatives. In

60 Isaac Penington, A Considerable Question about Government (London, 1653), 5“7.
61 Caroline Robbins, “Algernon Sidney™s Discourses on Government: A Textbook of Revolution,”
WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 4, no. 3 (1947), 267“96. Sidney wrote his Discourses shortly before his
execution in 1683, but they were ¬rst published in 1698.
62 Isaac Penington, The Fundamental Right, Safety and Liberty of the People (London, 1651), 1.
63 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 23.
64 William Penn quoted in Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popu-
lar Sovereignty in England and America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988),
80 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

the ideal constitution, he wrote, there is “no Transessentiating or Transubstan-
tiation of Being from People to Representatives.”65 We might understand this
as the problem of virtual, as opposed to actual representation. Christ and his
power are with the people, Penn clari¬ed, not the representatives. The poten-
tial for Light in all men meant the political responsibility was on individuals to
participate in some capacity.66 Accordingly, in the ¬rst two civil constitutions
that Quakers drafted, most if not all of the legislative powers were given to the
If this were all Quakers told us, we would know very little about their ideal
form of government and only that Quakers agreed with other Whigs that some
element of popular participation was necessary for the legitimacy of a govern-
ment. But the way they envisioned this engagement tells us more about their
ideal structure of government and the role of the people. For Quakers, pop-
ular participation in a civil or ecclesiastical polity was a process of collective
discernment through synteresis. They must combine their understanding of the
Light with those of others to get a complete understanding of God™s will.68
Penington advised the governed that they should not look to their governors
for guidance. If they were oppressed they must instead look to God in them-
selves. “Be still, be quiet,” wrote Penington, “and ye shall see that the Lord
will deal with those that oppress you.”69 In a pamphlet addressed to the King
and Parliament, Penington explained further that those seeking a true under-
standing of the law should free themselves from the “eye which cannot see the
things of God” and the “heart also which is insensible and so runs into the pit.”
Instead, they should seek recourse in the “eye, to which God giveth the true
sight, which foreseeth the evil and seeking an hiding place; and an heart which
feareth its Maker, and waiteth on him for counsel, distrusting its own under-
standing, which it feeleth shallow and apt to err.”70 As in a religious meet-
ing, to understand God the people would use the means typical of Whigs “
history, legal precedent, experience, and reason. But primarily, they should ¬rst
look, as Penn did, for “God™s evidence in my own Conscience” in their relations
with government and only then con¬rm it with “the Judgment and Example of
other Times.”71 Insofar as the discernment of the law was a collective process,

65 Ibid., 22.
66 See also Endy, William Penn and Early Quakerism, 343.
67 See Chapter 4 in this book.
68 This process is not entirely dissimilar from Edward Coke™s understanding of how reason forms
the common law “ as a collective endeavor whose product is greater than any single man could
create. “The commentator™s reason,” writes James R. Stoner, “evidently performs the work of
collection, silently discovering order in multiplicity but making no independent claims.” Reason
was used as a means of interpreting the law as well as a measure of consistency and accuracy in
the development of the law. James R. Stoner, Common Law & Liberal Theory: Coke, Hobbes,
& the Origins of American Constitutionalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992),
69 Penington, A Considerable Question, 5“7.
70 Isaac Penington, Three Queries Propounded to the King and Parliament (London, 1662), 1.
71 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 35.
Quaker Theory of a Civil Government 81

the divine competence was thus in the people collectively “ a divine sovereignty
by proxy.72 In Quaker theory, the power was in the people like never before
because God was “ or could be “ in all people. In theory at least, there was
no difference between “the people” and the entire population. Here was an
equality and popular political agency that scholars generally do not ¬nd until
the American Founding.73
The ¬rst two constitutions written by Quakers re¬‚ect this concern for pop-
ular sovereignty “ the West Jersey Concessions and Agreements (1676/77) and
the “Fundamentall Constitutions of Pennsilvania” (c. 1681). Both were created
in a similar process “ a collective effort of leading Friends, using advice from
other non-Quakers as well, and with one individual as primary draftsman.74
The authorship of the Concessions is uncertain, but there is good evidence
that its primary draftsman was elder Friend Edward Byllynge; the draftsman
of the Pennsylvania constitution was Penn.75 Scholars have identi¬ed the New
Jersey constitution as “one of the most politically innovative documents of the
seventeenth century,” and the Pennsylvania constitution was “the most liberal
plan of government for Pennsylvania.”76 In addition to other characteristics,

72 As in their religious polity, this idea of popular sovereignty did not translate into egalitarianism
or democracy. For a discussion on Penn™s ideas of social hierarchy, see Endy, William Penn and
Early Quakerism, 356“59.
73 Hill™s work shows how the democratic thinking of Quakers at this time was common among
many radical groups, but he also claims that none of these groups, Quakers included, had a
lasting affect on English or American politics (The World Turned Upside Down, 381). Following
Hill, Morgan ¬nds that “[t]he decline of social status as a force in ecclesiastical polity seems to
have preceded, and may have contributed to, its decline in civil polity” (Inventing the People,
300). Of course, as we have seen, social status was not a determinant of leadership in the ideal
Quaker community. Rather than Quakerism as a leveling force in early America, however,
Morgan ¬nds that the rise of pietism in the First Great Awakening was the greatest religious
element in the development of equality and popular sovereignty in America (295“300). Of
course, pietism, as its adherents and opponents recognized, drew much from Quakerism.
74 This practice departs from the common understanding of the day that the best governments are
created by one man. See Harrington, Oceana and Machiavelli, Discourses. Mary Maples Dunn
argues to the contrary in Politics and Conscience that Penn followed these examples and took
the opportunity to act alone. In their commentary on the “Fundamentall Constitutions” in The
Papers of William Penn, Dunn and Dunn likewise ¬nd that Penn was in favor of drafting alone
(2: 145, n. 6). But it is not clear how they came to this conclusion. They and others have noted
that when Quakers drafted their constitutions, although one man may have taken the lead in
the transcription, it was submitted for review to a number of other people whose changes were
often adopted. They note that there is no evidence that “Fundamentall Constitutions” was not
submitted to “adventurers or settlers” of Pennsylvania for their approval (PWP, 2: 153 n. 1),
but it did undergo a review process by “a range of people” from weighty Friends to non-Quaker
lawyers and political thinkers (PWP, 2: 137). This process is very similar to the one that Michael
Warner claims originated in the American constitutional era in “Textuality and Legitimacy in
the Printed Constitution,” in The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in
Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 97“117.
75 Mary Maples Dunn, “Did Penn Write the Concessions,” in West New Jersey and The West
Jersey Concessions and Agreements of 1676/77: A Roundtable of Historians, Occasional Papers,
no. 1 (Trenton, NJ: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979), 24“28.
76 PWP, 1: 387; and 2: 140.
82 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

a common feature of both was the popular control of the legislative process.
In both constitutions, the legislature was the dominant branch of government,
and the executive wielded very little power. Inhabitants of the colonies were
also accorded signi¬cant liberties, such as liberty of conscience, universal man-
hood suffrage in New Jersey, suffrage for all freeholders in Pennsylvania, and
trial by jury. Neither of these constitutions was successful. The Concessions
failed, and the “Fundamentall Constitutions” was never implemented. As we
shall see presently, Quaker theory and practice were not always in harmony.
The laws were made binding through collective discernment, agreement by
consensus, and submission by consent. “The collective body of people agreed
to” the “Fundamental points of English-Law Doctrine,” and this was “the most
solid Basis, [on which] our secondary Legislative Power, as well as our Exec-
utive is built.”77 The points of fundamental law to which the people agreed
in the Quaker colonies were much the same as any Whig™s, but with subtle
and signi¬cant differences. “We are a Free People by the Creation of God,”
said Penn.78 In treatises and constitutions, he outlined the fundamental laws
ordained by God. The most important were the right to property, the vote and
a share in the judiciary powers for the people, and liberty of conscience.79 The
¬rst and the last of these are related in a way that demonstrates the religious
priorities of Quakers.
Protection of property was basic for all Whigs, but for Quakers, as for other
religious groups such as Puritans, it was used not as a means to worldly status
or creature comforts but as a way to express faith in and obedience to God.80
As Frederick Tolles has shown, for the Quakers, earning more money allowed
them to do more of God™s work “ charity was one of the primary reasons both
the ecclesiastical and civil governments were established. But with plainness
and simplicity in attire and worldly possessions, Quakers did not, as Puritans,
see material wealth as a sign of spiritual status; it was to raise other members
of the community both in- and outside their Society by meeting their basic
material needs.81 One cannot ¬nd God, they knew, if one were distracted by
lack of basic necessities such as food, shelter, and education. Thus when the civil
government persecuted Quakers by ¬ning them and con¬scating their goods,
it was interfering with their religious duty to God and man. Civil punishments
for religious expression were, according to Penn, the “enemy of Grace.”82
Thus government was established so that man could “enjoy Property with

77 Penn, Great Case, 29.
78 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 32.
79 For a discussion of Penn™s views on these fundamental laws see Winthrop Hudson, “William
Penn™s English Liberties: Tract for Several Times,” WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 26, no. 4 (1969), 578“85.
80 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner™s
Sons, 1958).
81 This, of course, was the ideal. Tolles mentioned how many Quakers fell away from this ideal in
the midst of their prosperity in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania (Meeting House and Counting
House, 140“43).
82 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 3“4.
Quaker Theory of a Civil Government 83

Conscience that promoted it.”83 This understanding of the purpose of property
made Quakers exemplars of the so-called Protestant work ethic, which in
turn caused their ideas of property to evolve in advance of their non-Quaker
counterparts. While relationship of land-ownership to civil liberty was still
under debate in England,84 Quakers were establishing what would become
the most powerful colony economically and themselves as one of the most
in¬‚uential political groups through trade.
In sum, Quaker political obligation rested on three related features of their
political thought “ ¬rst, that the constitution and the government it created
were sacred and perpetual; second, that a process of popular participation was
ordained by God to determine the laws of the polity; and third, that the polity
should maintain a basis of unity. These features provided a basis for a theory
of constitutional change and legitimate civil dissent.

A Theory of Constitutional Change
Of all the peculiarities of the Quakers™ political thought, their idea of constitu-
tional change distinguished them most visibly from their contemporaries. The
recognition of governmental corruption, the dangers of an unlimited govern-
ment, and the risks of legal innovation were the cornerstone of both Quaker
and Whig thinking. For Whigs, what to do about them was a perennial prob-
lem. Whigs, regardless of whether they adhered to the ancient conception of a
constitution or a “modern” understanding, had no satisfying solution or func-
tional process for how to change government. The problem was the common
law itself.85
83 Ibid., 32.
84 Pocock, “Radical Criticisms,” 38.
85 The following discussion of the aspects of the ancient constitution and constitutional change
draws on several sources. See J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law:
A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1957). Working mainly with the thought of Coke, Pocock considers the
common law a “paradox” “ as something common lawyers perceived as immemorial, that is,
immutable, but always changing. In a 1987 reissue of his work, Pocock undertakes to clarify
misinterpretations of his argument. Here he maintains that it was not the law itself that was
immemorial but rather the juridical process. “[T]he notion of re¬nement and reform,” he says,
“was inherent in common-law ways of thinking.” Glenn Burgess, seeking to explain the “Janus-
faced” (Pocock, 275) quality of the common-law mind “ in being able, without contradiction,
to believe in stasis and change simultaneously “ expands Pocock™s analysis beyond Coke to
highlight the singularity of Coke™s thinking in this regard. He posits that most common lawyers
believed the ancient constitution to be ever-changing and changeable, but that they advised
against “innovation” (Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution, 55). In Common Law

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