Biographical account of the life of William Penn. [Dir: Lance Comfort/ Clifford Evans, Deborah Kerr, Dennis Arundell/ 88 min/ Biography, Drama/ Britain/ Freedom of Speech, Libertarian Heroes, Law & the Individual] No trailer available.
William Penn was an early libertarian hero, and an especially active champion of religious liberty. He wrote volumes in favor of it and exercised that liberty in open violation of the law — a “crime” for which he was sometimes imprisoned.
One of the high points of this film briefly covers the now famous “William Penn Trial,” in which he appealed to his jury to disregard the government’s statute against preaching nonapproved doctrine and to find him innocent because the statute was morally wrong. The jurors did so, but their decision so outraged the judge that he jailed them and demanded that they change their verdict to guilty. They were held for nine weeks, until finally England’s highest court ruled in a landmark decision that jurors could not be punished for their verdicts, and the jurors and William Penn were freed. (This right of the jury to judge the law as well as the facts of a case is a safeguard of freedom now being resurrected by the Fully Informed Jury Association.)
As the film dramatizes, Penn and his fellow Quakers nonetheless continued to be persecuted in England, so Penn used his family influence with the King to establish the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Thanks to Penn’s early Quaker ideas of social tolerance, liberty, and limited government, this colony was arguably the most libertarian of the original thirteen. It had the fewest laws, lowest taxes, and greatest freedom of immigration, though it’s only religious liberty that is the focus here.
Watching this film, the cynical may doubt that Penn was so heroic and tolerant. But by all accounts he was an idealistic man who believed that liberty worked and who was guided by the Quaker belief that all men are brothers, meant to live in peace.
The film might have gone into more complete detail about Penn’s libertarian ideas, but otherwise it has a lot going for it. It’s moving, well acted, and scripted in an age when a historical hero did not have to be marred with documented foibles. A young Deborah Kerr plays Penn’s wife. This is an appealing portrayal of a great friend of liberty. Also listed as Penn of Pennsylvania.