Updated: Oct 26, 2020
On October 26, 1649, John Lilburne was acquitted of the charge of high treason by a London jury to much celebration in London and throughout England.
Lilburne was arrested because he accused Cromwell of tyrannical behavior. Eight years earlier, inspired by Lilburne, Cromwell had introduced and passed legislation that abolished the infamous Star Chamber.
Lilburne had fought as a captain with Cromwell against King Charles I, enabling Cromwell to become Lord Protector. But Lilburne thought Cromwell had become as much a tyrant as Charles I, and had parted ways with Cromwell.
Lilburne, sometimes affectionately called “Free Born John” had become the most popular man in England, leading a powerful political movement called the green ribbon club. It was called that because adherents to liberty who followed the lead of Lilburne wore green ribbons on their arms.
Cromwell saw Lilburne as a threat to his reign and decided he had to go, having him arrested for treason.
Lilburne was denied counsel and represented himself at his trial. He told the jury that they were “judges of law as well as fact,” the judge contradicting him. Historians say this was the first use of that formulation in modern English history. Those words are embedded in the Texas Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 8. (“. . . and in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.”) The application of that idea - that jurors can do justice and protect liberty by refusing to convict if they think the law being prosecuted is unjust or unconstitutional (even when the facts show that the unjust law was broken) - is called jury nullification.
Lilburne’s acquittal produced much rejoicing in England, and the pictured medallion was struck to celebrate the victory. The jurors are listed on the reverse. The front text says, “John Lilborn, saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of his jury, who are judge of law as wel as fact.” (Consider the tragedy of having your name misspelled on a tribute to you that lasts almost four centuries after your death!)
John Lilburne is probably more responsible for all the criminal due process rights listed in our state and federal Constitutions than any other. He is one of the towering giants of liberty of all time. He was whipped, pilloried, and even lost an ear in the pursuit of those liberties. May we never forget him or his struggle.
As an aside, it was accusations of treason against liberty champions like Lilburne and Algernon Sydney that were in the minds of the framers when they carefully and narrowly defined the crime of treason and the proof needed for it in the Constitution. They knew that treason was a real thing, but that out of control, treason could become a terrible weapon of tyranny.
A generation after Lilburne’s death, John Locke and his friends were members of the still-active green ribbon club, when their enemies called them Whigamores (meaning Scottish cattle driver – equivalent to unsophisticated rube, country bumpkin, or hick). The group proudly accepted the name, shortened to Whig, as the name for those who believed in liberty and limited government, and it became the name of the political philosophy of the American founding fathers another ninety years later.
Tom Glass lives in Northwest Harris County. Click here to reach his email. He is also on Facebook as Tom G Glass. He leads a group called Texas Constitutional Enforcement which can be explored at its website or Facebook group. He also leads a group dedicated to educating about jury nullification called Lone Star Fully informed Jury Association (aka Lone Star FIJA) which has this website and this Facebook group.