Lashes For Contempt of Government in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: Chester County, PA, 1683: Our earliest (Christian) Founders had to decide on how they would punish people—free or indentured—who showed contempt for the government and its authority. In the following case, they decided on a standard punishment for the times.

It is not exactly clear who Anthony Weston was. He doesn’t appear in the deed records. He seems to have associated with servants and the lower classes, though one of them named in the record, below, was a member of the General Assembly.

The Council of Pennsylvania, the highest governing body, held at Philadelphia, may have been run by Quakers who believed in egalitarianism—and they were certainly more egalitarian than Old Europe or the rest of Baby America—but they could take it only so far.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what was in Antony Weston’s proposal. Whatever it was, it aroused the ire of the Council and its Governor in cold January.

Modernized transcription begins:

At a Council held at Philadelphia, the 16th of 11th month, 1683 [January 16, 1683/4*]


Wm. PENN, Proprietor and Governor

Chris. Taylor, Wm. Biles, John Simcock, Lasse Cock, Tho. Holmes, James Harrison, Wm. Clayton

The proposals of Anthony Weston with the rest of the persons’ names thereunto subscribed were read, and the Governor proposes which way to punish him, and they thought the best way was to have him whipped. Paul Saunders [tanner] and Tho. Stevens say that Antony Weston told them that John Songhurst [member of the Assembly], John Parsons [yeoman planter], Tho. Duckett [a malster] and others would stand to his paper.

Antony Weston being examined says that they met at Tho. Hooton’s and there chose him to draw up the proposals to the Governor and Provincial Council, which proposals were mended [sic] by Thos. Winn, who was reproved for doing the same.

The Governor proposes what to do with Anthony Weston: as many as have him whipped, say yea; passed in the affirmative.

John Stone and Thos. Dare his servant entered into a recognizance of fifty pounds apiece for their good behavior during the term of his servant’s servitude.

Henry Comely and Geo. Sheave his servant entered into a recognizance of fifty pounds apiece for their good behavior during the term of his servant’s servitude.

Wm. Clayton and Tho. Stevens his servant enter into a recognizance of fifty pounds apiece for their good behavior to the government during the said servant’s servitude.

The Governor and Provincial Council have thought fit that for the great presumption and contempt of this government and authority that Antony Weston be whipped at the marketplace on market days three times, each time to have ten lashes at 12:00 o’clock at noon, this being the first day.

A single recognizance of fifty pounds the freemen that subscribed to Anthony Weston’s proposals are to give for their good behavior to the government till such time as the General Assembly shall next sit.

Ordered that Wm. Clayton build a cage against the next Council day, 7 foot high, 7 foot long, and 5 foot broad.

Adjourned till the 17th 11 month, 1683.

Transcription ends.

Then on the 26th day of the 1st month, 1684 [March 26, 1684], just three months later, the Council minutes read:

“A Bill read where in cases requires stripes and they r x [sic] not mentioned that they shall not exceed one and twenty stripes … The Governor put the question: All that are of the opinion that the foregoing Bill[…] should pass say yea; passed in the affirmative.”

Stripes means lashes to the back. Deuteronomy 25:1-3 says no more than forty lashes, and the judge could decide how many, if the crime deserves fewer than forty.

We have come a long way since the seventeenth century, but I for one am glad we got past the punishment of lashing the back. Maybe someone out there feels we should bring it back. If you do, don’t join the legal profession so I have to stand in your court.

But I say our earliest Founders were products of their own time, and we have to interpret what they did in that timeframe.

I believe Wm. Clayton didn’t go along with this punishment, from what I know of him. That’s what “passed in the affirmative” means. It was not unanimous, for the Council minutes often say “no one contradicting,” that is, there is no dissenting voice or a “nay” vote.

Also, Clayton was ordered to build the cage, but imprisonment is not unjust, so maybe he agreed on it. In any case, they told him to build it because he was trained as a carpenter back in England; his father and grandfather were in the lumber business. He was probably the only one who was skilled to do that. It shows the egalitarianism of the earliest Quakers ….

Except for contempt of government and its authority.

* Why the slashed year? For us, the first month of the year is January. For the colonies and the UK back then, it was March. When we today cross the month of January in these old records, their eleventh month, researchers begin to slash the year.

Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 93; 97-98.

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