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Image Delaware Freedom Ways: The Quaker Idea of Reciprocal Liberty

In 1751 the Assembly of Pennsylvania celebrated an anniversary. The Charter of Privileges, which William Penn had granted his settlers in 1701 to guarantee their liberty, was exactly half a century old. To mark the occasion, the legislature ordered that a great bell should be purchased for the Pennsylvania State House.

Today, that building is better known as Independence Hall, and the great Quaker bell is called the Liberty Bell. Both of these symbols are associated in the popular mind with the American Revolution. But in fact they were the products of an earlier period of Anglo-American history; and they were meant to celebrate a special idea of liberty which was unique to the Quaker founders of Pennsylvania.

The original resolution to purchase the great Quaker bell was voted by members of the Society of Friends, who made up 70 percent of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1750. The inscription was selected by the Quaker speaker, who chose a passage from the book of Leviticus which seemed particularly meaningful to Christians of his denomination. The quotation referred to the liberty that God had given not merely to a chosen few, but to all his children, so that they might be safe in the sanctity of their families and secure in the possession of their property. The full biblical text seemed perfectly suitable to the anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges:

Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.1

Here was a libertarian idea that differed very much from the Puritan conception of ordered liberty for God’s chosen few, and also from the cavalier notion of hierarchical liberty for the keepers of


The Great Quaker Bell was purchased by the Pennsylvania Assembly many years before the American Revolution. It was rung on July 8, 1776, to celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and thereafter called the Liberty Bell. Even after it cracked while tolling the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835, it continued to be used on great libertarian occasions. This historian remembers hearing it on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when its sound was carried throughout the world by radio to mark the impending liberation of western Europe. This great bell of freedom has become a universal symbol, but it was originally intended to commemorate a very special idea of liberty that was unique to the radical Protestants, both British Quakers and German Pietists, who settled Pennsylvania. The bell bears a biblical inscription, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It symbolized an idea of reciprocal liberty that differed profoundly from other conceptions of freedom in British America.

slaves. Quakers believed in an idea of reciprocal liberty that embraced all humanity, and was written in the golden rule.

This Christian idea was reinforced in Quaker thinking by an exceptionally strong sense of English liberties. As early as 1687, William Penn ordered the full text of the Magna Carta to be reprinted in Philadelphia, together with a broad selection of other constitutional documents. His purpose was to remind the freeholders of Pennsylvania to remember their British birthright. He urged them:

not to give anything of liberty that at present they do enjoy, but take up the good example of our ancestors, and understand that it is easy to part with or give away great privileges, but hard to be gained if lost.2

On the subject of liberty, the people of Pennsylvania needed no lessons from their Lord Proprietor. Few public questions were introduced among the colonists without being discussed in terms of rights and liberties. On its surface, this libertarian rhetoric seemed superficially similar to that of Massachusetts and Virginia. But the founders of Pennsylvania were a different group of Englishmen—a later generation, from another English region, with a special kind of Christian faith. Their idea of liberty was not the same as that which came to other parts of British America.

The most important of these differences had to do with religious freedom—“liberty of conscience,” William Penn called it. This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of “soul freedom” protected every Christian conscience.

The most articulate spokesman for this idea was William Penn himself. Of nearly sixty books and pamphlets that Penn wrote before coming to America, half were defenses of liberty of conscience. Some of these works were among the most powerful statements ever written on this subject. One ended with a revealing personal remark: “ … tis a matter of great satisfaction to the author that he has so plainly cleared his conscience in pleading for the liberty of other men’s.”3

Penn’s idea of liberty of conscience was a moral absolute. It was summarized in many of his epigrams:

Conscience is God’s throne in man, and the power of it his prerogative.

Liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right, and he who is deprived of it is a slave in the midst of the greatest liberty.

There is no reason to persecute any man in this world about anything that belongs to the next.

No man is so accountable to his fellow creatures as to be imposed upon, restrained or persecuted for any matter of conscience whatever.

For the matters of liberty and privilege, I propose … to leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of the whole country.

These ideas of liberty of conscience were grounded in Penn’s Quaker faith. He once remarked that there was an “instinct of a deity” within every human soul which needed no forcing from the hand of mortal man. Further, the idea of the inner light led him to believe that everyone possessed the power of telling truth from error. The optimistic fatalism of Quaker faith persuaded him that truth would inevitably overcome error if it were left free to do so. Penn’s “liberty of conscience” was not a secular liberalism that valued freedom for its own sake. It was a means to a greater end: the triumph of Christian truth in the world.

William Penn’s personal experience of religious persecution gave him other reasons for believing in religious liberty. His own sufferings convinced him that the coercion of conscience was not merely evil but futile, and deeply dangerous to true faith. “They subvert all true religion,” Penn wrote, “ … where men believe, not because ‘tis false, but so commanded by their superiors.”4

These memories and experiences were not Penn’s alone. In the period from 1661 to 1685, historians estimate that at least 15,000 Quakers were imprisoned in England, and 450 died for their beliefs. As late as the year 1685, more than 1,400 Quakers were still languishing in English jails. Most “books of sufferings” recorded punishments that continued well into the eighteenth century—mostly fines and seizures for nonpayment of tithes. These records also revealed that the cruelest persecutors of the Quakers were Anglican clergy:

John Lingard of Stockhall [Derbyshire] the younger was imprisoned Darby Gaols at the suit of William White priest of Chapell of Fritt [sic] who himself seized upon him as he was reaping his own corn the last corn harvest and detayned him until the officers came who carried him straightaway to Derby gaol. …

The said priest had formerly himself broke into the said John Lingard the elder’s house forcing the outward door from the hooks and broke an inward door at the same time in pieces and hath taken his corn by his own hands, carrying it away on horseback.5

For their refusal to pay tithes, Quakers were often fined far beyond the amount in question; sometimes all of their property was confiscated. In 1672, English Quaker William Cooper refused to pay a few shillings in tithes, and was fined five pounds fifteen shillings, “for which they sold his cow, corn, hay and household goods to the coat he should have worn.”6

Many Quaker immigrants to Pennsylvania had experienced this religious persecution; they shared a determination to prevent its growth in their own province. The first fundamental law passed in Pennsylvania guaranteed liberty of conscience for all who believed in “one Almighty God,” and established complete freedom of worship. It also provided penalties for those who “derided the religion of others.” The Quaker founders of Pennsylvania were not content merely to restrain government from interfering with rights of conscience. They also made it an instrument of positive protection. Here was a reciprocal idea of religious liberty which they actively extended to others as well as themselves.7

Liberty of conscience was one of a large family of personal freedoms which Quakers extended equally to others. William Penn recognized three secular “rights of an Englishman”: first, a “right and title to your own lives, liberties and estates; second, representative government; third, trial by jury.”8 In Pennsylvania, these liberties went far beyond those of Massachusetts, Virginia and old England itself. In regard to the right of trial by jury, Penn insisted that every free-born Englishman had a right to be tried by his peers; that a jury had the right to decide questions of both fact and law; and that the law could not be used to punish a jury for its verdict. The laws of Pennsylvania also guaranteed the right of every freeman to a speedy trial, to a jury chosen by lot in criminal cases, and to the same privileges of witnesses and counsel as the prosecution. These ideas went far beyond prevailing practices in England and America.9

The protection of property was also a principle of high importance to William Penn. The seizure of Quaker estates for nonpayment of tithes was condemned not merely as an infringement of rights of conscience, but also as a violation of the rights of property. Others have seen a conflict between personal rights and property rights. William Penn did not. The laws of the Quaker colonies reflected his belief that the two rights were both part of one libertarian heritage. The Charter of Privileges in 1701 decreed that no person could be “at any time hereafter, obliged to answer any complaint, matter or thing whatsoever relating to property before the governor and council,” except in “the ordinary course of justice.”10

As regards the right of representative government, the Quaker colonies also went beyond other provinces in British America. One of the fundamental laws of Pennsylvania required that taxes could be imposed only by consent of the governed, and that all tax laws expired automatically after twelve months. These rules expressed the Quaker principle of reciprocal liberty, and their libertarian application of the golden rule, in the idea that no taxes should be levied upon the people except those which they were willing to impose upon themselves.

In all of these ways, the Quakers extended to others in America precisely the same rights that they had demanded for themselves in England. Many other libertarians have tended to hedge their principles when power passed into their hands. That sad story has been reenacted many times in world history, from New England Puritans to French Jacobins to Israeli Jews who have cruelly denied to others the rights they demanded for themselves. The Quakers behaved differently. They always remained true to their idea of reciprocal liberty, to the everlasting glory of their denomination.

The Quakers of the Delaware Valley also differed from other English-speaking people in regard to race slavery. The question was a difficult one for them. The first generation of Quakers had been deeply troubled by slavery, but many were not opposed outright. The problem was compounded in the Delaware Valley by the fact that slavery worked well as an economic institution in this region. Many Quakers bought slaves. Even William Penn did so. Of the leaders of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for whom evidence survives, 70 percent owned slaves in the period from 1681 to 1705.11

But within the first decade of settlement a powerful antislavery movement began to develop in the Delaware Valley. As early as 1688, the Quakers of Germantown issued a testimony against slavery on the ground that it violated the golden rule.12 In 1696, two leading Quakers, Cadwalader Morgan and William Southeby, urged the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to forbid slavery and slave trading. The meeting refused to go that far, but agreed to advise Quakers “not to encourage the bringing in of any more Negroes.” As antislavery feeling expanded steadily among Friends, slaveowning declined among leaders of the Philadelphia yearly meeting—falling steadily from 70 percent before 1705, to only 10 percent after 1756.13

The Pennsylvania legislature took action in 1712, passing a prohibitive duty on the importation of slaves. This measure was disallowed by the English Crown, which had a heavy stake in the slave trade. In 1730 the Philadelphia yearly meeting cautioned its members, but still a few Friends continued to buy slaves. Other Quaker antislavery petitions and papers followed in increasing number. A close student of this material finds that Quaker “anti-slavery reformers never contended that slavery was economically unsound.” They insisted that it was morally corrupt, and at war with the deepest values of Christianity. The argument came down to the reciprocal principle of the golden rule. Quakers argued that if they did not wish to be slaves themselves, they had no right to enslave others.14

Delegations from Quaker meetings throughout the Delaware Valley were sent to slaveholders, urging a policy of compensated manumission. The evidence of private journals and public testimony shows that many Quaker slaveholders were profoundly troubled by this question, which haunted them even in their dreams. But a few continued to hold out, and the near unanimity that was needed for agreement could not be obtained.

The turning point came in 1758. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting recorded a “unanimous concern” against “the practice of importing, buying, selling, or keeping slaves for term of life.”15 This was the first success for the cause of abolition anywhere in the Western world. “The history of the early abolitionist movement,” writes historian Arthur Zilversmit, “is essentially the record of Quaker antislavery activities.”16

Quakers also took an active interest in the welfare of former slaves. Many masters helped to support their slaves after manumitting them. Others compensated them for their labor during slavery. When Abner Woolman (the brother of John Woolman) in 1767 freed two slaves his wife had inherited, he decided to pay them a sum equal to the amount that the estate had been increased by their labor, and asked the Haddonfield (New Jersey) meeting to help him compute a just sum.17

The antislavery ideas of the Quakers were shared by others throughout the Delaware Valley. Attitudes of German Pietists were similar to those of English Friends. Quaker abolitionists such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet carried the cause to others in the Delaware Valley. In 1773, non-Quakers joined Friends within the Pennsylvania legislature in trying to stop the trade in human flesh by imposing a prohibitively high duty on slaves. Once again it was disallowed by British imperial authorities. In January 1775, one of the first acts of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Convention, when freed from British oversight, was to prohibit the importation of slaves. After a protracted legislative process, the Assembly also passed a bill in 1780 for the gradual abolition of slavery. Here was yet another expression of the idea of reciprocal liberty which Quakers made a part of the political folkways of the Delaware Valley.18

The Quakers were among the most radical libertarians of their age. But they were not anarchists. Penn himself wrote in his Frame of Government that “liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.”19 Penn instructed his governor to “rule the meek meekly, and those that will not be ruled, rule with authority.”20

The Quakers radically redefined the “rights of Englishmen” in terms of their Christian beliefs. But they never imagined that they were creating something new. Penn and others in the colony wrote always of their rights as “ancient” and “fundamental” principles which were rooted in the immemorial customs of the English-speaking people and in the practices of the primitive church.

In the conservative cast of their libertarian thinking, the Quakers were much the same as Puritans and Anglicans. But in the substance of their libertarian thought they were very different. In respect to liberty of conscience, trial by jury, the rights of property, the rule of representation, and race slavery, Quakers genuinely believed that every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.

One leading student of this subject summarizes the vital principle of Quaker liberty in a sentence: “Men will reciprocate if treated kindly and justly.” This, he writes, was “the basis of Quaker dealings with other men.”21

This idea of reciprocal liberty continues to exist in the United States. It has changed in many ways, becoming more procedural and less substantive in its conception. It has been appropriated by those who believe that the republic itself should not associate itself with any creed other than that of secular liberty itself. This idea of ethical neutrality is profoundly different from the purposes of the Quakers. But in that modern form, the idea of reciprocal liberty still flourishes in healthy competition with other principles of freedom in America today.

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