William Penn: How to “Keep” a Good Constitution

Liberty Letters, William Penn: 1682

Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.

I know some say, let us have good laws, and no matter for the men that execute them: but let them consider, that though good laws do well, good men do better: for good laws may want [lack] good men, and be abolished or evaded by ill men: but good men will never want [lack] good laws, nor suffer ill ones. It is true, good laws have some awe upon ill ministers, but that is where they have not power to escape or abolish them, and the people are generally wise and good: but a loose and depraved people (which is the question) love laws and an administration like themselves. That, therefore, which makes a good constitution, must keep it, viz: men of wisdom and virtue, qualities, that because they descend not with worldly inheritances, must be carefully propagated by a virtuous education of youth; for which after ages will owe more to the care and prudence of founders, and the successive magistracy, than to their parents, for their private patrimonies….


Source: William Penn, excerpt from Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, 1682.


The Liberty Letters are researched, and edited (with occasional commentary) by Steve Farrell. Liberty Letters as a collective project, and individual letters when edited, or accompanied by our commentary and or introductory notes: Copyright © 2012 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal. The original copyright of this William Penn quote is held in the Public Domain. I have slightly modified the original by inserting the nearly out of use definition of the word “want” in brackets.