The origins of the limits on the executive branch in early America

The kings and parliament in the seventeenth century fought for political power.

Who would win? How does this struggle relate to new-world America?

By the time 1683 came around, the king’s power was very limited. This limitation can be contrasted, say, with Henry the VIII (r. 1509-1547), whose power was absolute, as the times moved from the Late Medieval Age to the Renaissance.

Following the momentum of history, William Penn and his Council composed the Frame of Government or the basic Charter of Liberties, laying out the distribution of power flowing between the General Assembly, the Council (members named below) and the Governor.

In one place it tells the public that if William Penn were to do anything that breaks the liberties listed in the Frame of Government, then it shall be of no force or effect.

The modern dating system is April 2, 1683.

Modernized transcription begins:

And lastly. I, the said William Penn, the Proprietary and Governor of the province of Pennsylvania and territories thereunto belonging, for me, my heirs and assigns, have solemnly declared, granted, and confirmed and do hereby solemnly declare, grant, and confirm that neither I, my heirs, my assigns shall procure or do anything or things whereby the liberties in this Charter contained and expressed shall be infringed or broken; and if anything be procured by any person or persons, contrary to these premises, it shall be held of no force or effect. In witness whereof, I, the said William Penn, at Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, have unto this present charter of liberties, set my hand and broad seal, this second day of the second month, in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and eighty three, being the five and thirtieth year of the king and the third year of my government.

WILLIAM PENN

This within charter, which we have distinctly heard read, and thankfully received, shall be by us inviolably kept, at Philadelphia, the second day of the second month, one thousand, six hundred eighty three.

The members of the Provincial Council present:

William Markham, John Moll, William Haige, Christopher Taylor, John Simcock, William Clayton, Francis Whitwell, Thomas Holmes, William Clark, William Biles, John Richardson, Philip Thomas Lenmar, Secretary to the Governor, Richard Ingelo, Clerk of Council

Transcription ends.

So the English tradition puts limits on the power of the executive branch in this Frame of Government, this Charter of Liberties.

Our Framers of the Constitution a hundred years later were influenced by such documents and the momentum of history.

My application for today: Live as free people, especially when the executive branch goes around or short-circuits our present Constitution.

Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), p. 47

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