Trials of Liberty

Sometimes liberties are won or lost not on a battlefield or in an assembly hall, on even on appeal, but in trial, where the best expositions of law are often made. These are a few such cases, to which more will be added as time and funds permit.

In the following, How. is an abbreviation of Howell's State Trials. The preceding digits are the volume number, and the following digits the page number.

Selected British Trials

  •   The Trial of Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, at the Guildhall of London, for High Treason, 1649. 1 Charles II. 4 How. 1270. Lilburne was the leader of the "Levellers", a group of reformers who sought to establish civil liberties. In this first trial, he was acquitted, but his enemies persecuted him further, and he was exiled from England by an act of Parliament. He later returned to challenge the banishment, resulting in the second major trial.
  •  The Trial of Mr. John Lilburne, at the Sessions of the Peace held for the City of London, at Justice-Hall in the Old Bailey, for returning into England, being banished by Act of Parliament, 1653. 6 Charles II. 5 How. 407. In this second trial, charges were eventually dropped.
  •  Proceedings of the Lord Protector and his Council against Sir Henry Vane, knt. for the publication of a book, intitled "A Healing Question, propounded and resolved, upon occasion of the late public and seasonable Call to Humiliation, in order to Love and Union amongst the honest Party," 1656. 8 Charles II. 5 How. 791. Vane was a legal reformer allied with the Levellers.
  •  The Trial of Sir Henry Vane, knt. at the Kings-Bench, for High Treason, 1662. 14 Charles II. 6 How. 119. Vane was sacrificed after the Restoration for having carried out the orders of Parliament to execute the King.
  • HTML Version Text Version The Trial of William Penn and William Mead, at the Old Bailey, for a Tumultuous Assembly, 1670. 22 Charles II. 6 How. 951. Having failed to convict his father, Sir William Penn, for treason, the son was prosecuted for practicing his Quaker religion. The jury, led by Edward Bushell, held out and acquitted him, and thereby established the right of religion. Penn would later found Pennsylvania.
  • HTML Version Text Version Case of the Imprisonment of Edward Bushell, for alleged misconduct as a Juryman, 1670. 22 Charles II. 6 How. 999. Having failed to convict Penn, the prosecution sought to punish the jurors, but failed, thereby establishing the right and duty of juries to judge the law as well as the facts in criminal trials.
  •  The Trial of Algernon Sidney for High Treason. 9 How. 817. Sidney was prosecuted for his writings on trumped-up charges, but became a martyr for liberty, and was posthumously exonerated. See his Discourses Concerning Government (1698).
  •  The Trial of the Seven Bishops. 12 How. 183. Once again the jury defied the judges and judged the law, confirming the precedent of Bushell's Case, which stood until subverted by the Mansfield faction after 1800.
  •  Text Version Entick v. Carrington. 19 How. 1029 (1765). Established that the executors of an illegal warrant are liable as trespassers.
  •  The Trial of John Almon, Bookseller, ... For selling Junius's Letter. (1770) Publication of the Letters of Junius was prosecuted as a criminal libel of the English government.
  •  The Trial at Large, ... In the Nature of a Quo Warranto, Against Mr. Thomas Amery, , ... of the City of Chester. (1786) This quo warranto action was submitted for decision by a jury.
  •  The Trial of Thomas Hardy for High Treason. (1794) Hardy was prosecuted for leading an effort to organize a convention of reformers to demand voting rights for a wider population in Parliament, but the jury acquitted, supporting the right to peaceably assemble to petition for redress of grievances.

Selected British Appeals

  •  Dr. Bonham's Case. (1610) The Royal College of Physicians tried and convicted Dr. Thomas Bonham for the unlicensed practice of medicine. He appealed on grounds of false imprisonment. The appeal was heard by Sir Edward Coke, who ruled for Bonham, and rendered an opinion that in some cases (involving natural law) the common law was superior even to acts of Parliament. This is from Coke's Reports.

Selected American Trials

  •  PDF Version The Trial of John Peter Zenger, 1735. 17 How. 675. The jury decided that truth was a defense against libel.
  •  The Case, Trevett against Weeden, for refusing Paper Bills in Payment. (1787) This legal tender action may have inspired the prohibition in the U.S. Constitution of states making anything but gold or silver legal tender.
  •  The Two Trials of John Fries for Treason. (1800) Fries was the first person tried under the 1798 Sedition Act, for leading a peaceable assembly to protest actions of government officials. He was tried and convicted, the case reversed and retried, and convicted again, but pardoned by President John Adams.


  •  Howell's State Trials — A Collection of important State Trials, from 1063 through 1815, compiled and edited by Thomas Bayly Howell, in 33 Volumes. These cases provide precedents that defined many of the terms used in the U.S. Constitution.
  •  A Collection of State-Trials, and Proceedings For High-Treason, And Other Crimes And Misdemeanours; From the Reign of King Richard II to the Reign of King George II. in Six Volumes.

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Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
Original date: 2002/12/19 —