An act of grace
It was the summer of 1776, and all was not well in the heated politics of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s voting restrictions had kept the reins of the local government in the hands of a conservative few, and while they had sent a delegation to the Continental Congress, the delegation was under instructions not to vote for independence. An election in May of 1776 simply maintained the status quo.1
Between the Continental Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, and a rise of local committees in support of independence, sentiment grew to the point where a constitutional convention was called in Pennsylvania itself, with the new convention representatives determined to chart a new path. Work began in June 1776 under the direction of Benjamin Franklin.2
The end result — the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 — has been described as “the most democratic in America … the heart of a popular revolt against the existing government.”3
But that’s not all the delegates did that summer.
They also passed ordinances — laws — between June and September 1776, and the very first ordinance printed in the volume of the Statutes of Large of Pennsylvania from that Convention is a remarkable piece of pragmatic work. It read, in part:
Whereas at this time the courts of justice within this state are surceased, and all process and proceedings by which suits can be legally commenced, proceeded in or determined are by the authority of the people justly and totally suppressed:
And whereas the detaining in custody debtors under execution who are willing to deliver up their estates for the use of their creditors, or debtors confined under mesne process who have no legal mode of entering bail in order to free their persons from imprisonment is not oniy oppressive but can be of no real benefit or advantage to the creditors:
And whereas a total change of government by the assistance of Divine Providence has been effected within the United States, and acts of grace to criminals sometimes are granted on events of such importance:
Be it ordained and declared by the Representatives of the Freemen of the State of Pennsylvania in General Convention met, That all and every person and persons imprisoned or detained in any gaol within this state by reason of any process, writ or commitment for debt or any criminal offense whatsoever (except for capital offenses or practices against the present virtuous measures of the American States or prisoners of war) be forthwith released and discharged.4
So… what exactly did they do here?
• First, they freed everybody sitting in jail for criminal offenses against the British royal authoritities. Everybody in the hoosegow for minor offenses. All those strong young men who’d been the toughs of the streets.5
• Second, they made it easy for everybody sitting in jail on what was called mesne process to get out of jail quickly and with a minimum of paperwork. Mesne process was an old writ that held someone in jail to answer a civil action for debt. No final judgment had been reached in the case yet; it was to hold the person “between the commencement of the action and the suing out of execution.”6
• And third, they set up a system for those who were in what amounted to debtor’s prison to quickly hand over what property they did have for the benefit of their creditors and then be released from those debts forever.
In the process of this “act of grace,” the jails and jailers were freed of the obligation to handle prisoners the courts were no longer capable of dealing with; court dockets were swept clean of minor criminal matters; and — perhaps most importantly — large numbers of men of militia age were not only freed to take up arms on behalf of the patriot cause but given reason to be loyal to the cause of those whose actions had freed them.
An act of grace, providing a graceful exit from the jails of Pennsylvania.
- “Pennsylvania Constitution September 28, 1776,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/phmc_home/1426 : accessed 4 Aug 2014). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Act of 1 August 1776, 9 Pa. St. L. 5, Ch. 727, in The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1801, 18 vols. (Harrisburg, Pa.: State Printer, 1903); digital images, Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau (http://www.palrb.us/default.php : accessed 4 Aug 2014). ↩
- They did, of course, keep the serious offenders, the prisoners of war and those opposing the new government in jail. ↩
- See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 770, “mesne process.” ↩