William Blackstone was an English Jurist, a professor of law at Oxford, and Solicitor General to the Queen. Before Blackstone joined the faculty, English universities had focused exclusively on the study of Roman law. Blackstone authored Commentaries on the Laws of England widely regarded as the most complete and readable commentary on English law. The Supreme Court often references Blackstone’s writing as a source for determining the intent of the Founders when interpreting the Constitution.
Born in England in 1586, Thomas Hooker was raised in an ultra-conservative period in English history. After receiving degrees at Cambridge University, Thomas Hooker became a preacher whose sermons clashed with the established Church of England. He was eventually forced to leave England. He lived in Massachusetts and later founded the colony of Connecticut where he established a highly successful church in what is now Hartford, Connecticut. He aided in the adoption of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. Believing in the principle of equality for all mankind, Hooker is sometimes called “the father of American democracy.” Hooker advanced a more democratic view, favoring the vote for all men, regardless of any religious or property qualifications.
Anne Hutchinson stood up to a religious theocracy (where the church and the government are the same) in defense of religious liberty. A well-educated minister’s daughter, Hutchinson was born in England in 1591 and came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. She became a midwife, and she made friends. Soon she began to invite women to her home for Bible study. Over the years, Hutchinson attracted a following. Almost sixty people, both men and women, joined her group. The discussions at her home soon became more like sermons where she criticized the teachings of the colony’s ministers. For anyone—and especially a woman—to go against the official religion of the colony was a crime. Colony ministers charged Hutchinson with eighty-two “erroneous opinions.” But she did not keep silent. She courageously defended her beliefs. In the end, Hutchinson was convicted and banished to the colony of Rhode Island. Hutchinson’s struggle affirmed the values of respect and religious liberty. In 1789, the Constitution banned religious tests for public office; the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, stopped the federal government from establishing a national church; finally, all the states ended their official churches by the early 19th century. Hutchinson’s early struggle helped lay the foundation for religious liberty.
William Penn was born in England to a prominent Anglican family, and endured persecution when he came a Quaker. He was arrested and imprisoned for expressing his beliefs. Penn was determined to found a new Quaker settlement in America where religious toleration would flourish. With land given to him by the King as payment for debts owed his father, Penn founded Pennsylvania (named after his father) in 1681. Writing the colonial charter and making plans from across the Atlantic in England, Penn wrote to the colony’s residents about his belief that just government relies on the consent of the governed: “You shall be governed by laws of your own making…” He ensured rights such as jury trials, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion for all Christians were included in the charter. Penn’s commitment to moderation was evident in the colony’s criminal code. At a time when other colonies punished religious dissenters with death and English law provided the death penalty for offenses like robbery, Pennsylvania reserved the death penalty for the crimes of murder and treason only. The government also included precursors to the Constitution including separation of powers and republican government. On his first visit to Pennsylvania in 1682, Penn founded the city of Philadelphia. In negotiating with Indians, he always treated them with respect and paid a fair price for land. On his second visit in 1701, a new constitution for the colony was written that endured until the Revolutionary War. A bell was cast in 1751 for the 50th anniversary of that document, on which was inscribed a Biblical verse: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This bell, now known as the Liberty Bell, hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson called Penn “the greatest law-giver the world has produced.”
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who settled in New York and became a publisher. He printed the first political newspaper in the country called the New York Weekly Journal. Its pages contained criticism of the New York governor, charging that he was threatening the “liberties and properties” of the people, and that he had violated the rules of his office. In response, the governor ordered the newspapers burned and had Zenger arrested for “seditious libel.” Zenger’s bail was set extremely high and he spent nine months in jail. At his trial, Zenger complained that the three judges on the bench had all been appointed by the governor. In response, the judges disbarred (or disqualified) Zenger’s lawyers. Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton then took the case. Hamilton argued that the law defining “seditious libel” was unjust, because it was irrelevant whether the objectionable printed statements were true or false. Since what Zenger printed was true, Hamilton argued, the jury should set him free. He asserted the importance of a free press in society, which ought to have “a liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth.” The jury agreed and set aside the law, acquitting Zenger. In addition to the principles of press freedom expressed by Hamilton, the Zenger case illustrates the importance of protections such as jury trials, due process, and prohibitions on excessive bail.