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England under James II
by [?]

Considering the prominent part acted by William Penn in the reign of James II., and his active and influential support of the obnoxious declaration which precipitated the revolution of 1688, it could hardly have been otherwise than that his character should suffer from the unworthy suspicions and prejudices of his contemporaries. His views of religious toleration were too far in advance of the age to be received with favor. They were of necessity misunderstood and misrepresented. All his life he had been urging them with the earnestness of one whose convictions were the result, not so much of human reason as of what he regarded as divine illumination. What the council of James yielded upon grounds of state policy he defended on those of religious obligation. He had suffered in person and estate for the exercise of his religion. He had travelled over Holland and Germany, pleading with those in authority for universal toleration and charity. On a sudden, on the accession of James, the friend of himself and his family, he found himself the most influential untitled citizen in the British realm. He had free access to the royal ear. Asking nothing for himself or his relatives, he demanded only that the good people of England should be no longer despoiled of liberty and estate for their religious opinions. James, as a Catholic, had in some sort a common interest with his dissenting subjects, and the declaration was for their common relief. Penn, conscious of the rectitude of his own motives and thoroughly convinced of the Christian duty of toleration, welcomed that declaration as the precursor of the golden age of liberty and love and good-will to men. He was not the man to distrust the motives of an act so fully in accordance with his lifelong aspirations and prayers. He was charitable to a fault: his faith in his fellow-men was often stronger than a clearer insight of their characters would have justified. He saw the errors of the king, and deplored them; he denounced Jeffreys as a butcher who had been let loose by the priests; and pitied the king, who was, he thought, swayed by evil counsels. He remonstrated against the interference of the king with Magdalen College; and reproved and rebuked the hopes and aims of the more zealous and hot-headed Catholics, advising them to be content with simple toleration. But the constitution of his mind fitted him rather for the commendation of the good than the denunciation of the bad. He had little in common with the bold and austere spirit of the Puritan reformers. He disliked their violence and harshness; while, on the other hand, he was attracted and pleased by the gentle disposition and mild counsels of Locke, and Tillotson, and the latitudinarians of the English Church. He was the intimate personal and political friend of Algernon Sydney; sympathized with his republican theories, and shared his abhorrence of tyranny, civil and ecclesiastical. He found in him a man after his own heart,–genial, generous, and loving; faithful to duty and the instincts of humanity; a true Christian gentleman. His sense of gratitude was strong, and his personal friendships sometimes clouded his judgment. In giving his support to the measures of James in behalf of liberty of conscience, it must be admitted that he acted in consistency with his principles and professions. To have taken ground against them, he must have given the lie to his declarations from his youth upward. He could not disown and deny his own favorite doctrine because it came from the lips of a Catholic king and his Jesuit advisers; and in thus rising above the prejudices of his time, and appealing to the reason and humanity of the people of England in favor of a cordial indorsement on the part of Parliament of the principles of the declaration, he believed that he was subserving the best interests of his beloved country and fulfilling the solemn obligations of religious duty. The downfall of James exposed Penn to peril and obloquy. Perjured informers endeavored to swear away his life; and, although nothing could be proved against him beyond the fact that he had steadily supported the great measure of toleration, he was compelled to live secluded in his private lodgings in London for two or three years, with a proclamation for his arrest hanging over his head. At length, the principal informer against him having been found guilty of perjury, the government warrant was withdrawn; and Lords Sidney, Rochester, and Somers, and the Duke of Buckingham, publicly bore testimony that nothing had been urged against him save by impostors, and that “they had known him, some of them, for thirty years, and had never known him to do an ill thing, but many good offices.” It is a matter of regret that one professing to hold the impartial pen of history should have given the sanction of his authority to the slanderous and false imputations of such a man as Burnet, who has never been regarded as an authentic chronicler. The pantheon of history should not be lightly disturbed. A good man’s character is the world’s common legacy; and humanity is not so rich in models of purity and goodness as to be able to sacrifice such a reputation as that of William Penn to the point of an antithesis or the effect of a paradox.