THE "GREAT LAW"- December 7, 1682

The Great Law transcript

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The Great Law on parchment

Record Group 26: Records of the Department of State, Basic Documents. Iron gall ink on parchment, seven pages, 24" X 11 1/2."

What is known as the "Great Law" is a series of statutes enacted by Pennsylvania's first legislature that met in Upland, now Chester, on December 4-7, 1682. William Penn supervised their preparation before he arrived in America on October 30, 1682. Because he wanted to submit them to the property-holders' representatives as promptly as possible, he issued writs calling for the election of men from three Pennsylvania and three Delaware Counties to serve as their representatives in a General Assembly. The colony's legislature had not yet organized into a bicameral body nor were the proposed laws circulated as Penn's First Frame of Government required. Penn anticipated that eventually the legislature's upper house, to be known as the Council, would prepare bills for the lower house, the Assembly, to approve or disapprove. Penn was reluctant to grant to the Assembly the authority to initiate legislation, lest the representatives pass laws that were contrary to his charter and would threaten his colony's existence. Nevertheless, he later granted this power. There is no complete record of the composition of this first legislative body. Whoever they were, they displayed their independence by failing to pass twelve of the laws that Penn submitted.

The preamble and laws reflect Penn's belief that religion and politics were intertwined. With all due respect to the King, he believed that his colony was a gift from God and that government is a "venerable ordinance of God." Penn's God was a Christian deity. He intended to provide "such Laws as shall best preserve true Christian and Civil Liberty." Office-holders were to profess their belief in Jesus Christ as "the Son of God and Savior of the World." Within a Christian context, Penn was a distinctive colonizer as he insisted on freedom of worship, typical of the Society of Friends (Quakers) who believed that they should extend to others the rights that they requested for themselves. The first "Chapter" in the "Great Law" emphasizes clearly that no one shall be "Compelled to frequent or Maintaine any Religious Worshipp place or Ministry whatever." Pennsylvania was the only large political unit in the western world to offer this degree of religious liberty.

Many other laws also reflect the Friends' religious beliefs. Pennsylvanians were forbidden to do their "Common Toyle" on the "first day of the Week called the Lord's day." They were not to "take the Lord's name in vain" or bear "false witness." Also prohibited was wasting time in worldly amusements, such as "Playing at Cards…," attending "Bullbaits," and participating in "Riotous Sports." The "days of the Week and Months of the Year" were to be known by their numbers "as in Scripture," such as the first day of the week and the second month of the year, "and not by Heathen Names…." The Friends concern for the "Natives" they expressed in the prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages to them because they feared that the "Indians are not able to Govern themselves in their use of it… ." Punishments were to be humane. When incarceration was required it was to be in "houses of Correction", or "Workhouses" that were required in every county, where Friends believed offenders might be redeemed. Capitol punishment (Chapter 7) was to be used only in cases of premeditated murder.

The "Great Law" provided a stable foundation for Pennsylvania's representative government. Provisions that were not obviously religious included such matters as specification for weights and measures, regulation of a "Publique house," maintenance of records, establishment of courts, conduct of trials, eligibility of voters, prevention of fraud in elections, and control of taxation "by a Law for that purpose made by the Government and Freemen… ." The establishment so promptly of a regime in which the people could participate in passing laws was unusual. Settlers in most other colonies in America had to contend for what Penn offered immediately. His emphasis on the involvement of the people, however limited, also was inconsistent with the trend in England. For example, his benefactor, King Charles II, dismissed Parliament on March 2, 1681, and did not call it into session again for the remainder of his reign. In contrast, Penn gradually expanded the authority of the Pennsylvania Assembly. By the late Colonial Period, it was one of the most powerful legislatures in British America.