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Born into the English landed gentry, Sir Henry Vane early rejected the advantages of his class, becoming a Protestant Dissenter. This set him against the government of Charles I and Archbishop Laud and their desire for an absolutist state coupled with a government-sanctioned church based on the European model.

At age twenty two, Henry went out to live with his co-religionists in the newly-established American colonies. The Bostonians soon recognized his merits and elected him governor. But once again Vane saw himself at odds with the mainstream dissenters, who often saw freedom as no more than the right to belong to an approved dissenting church, and a free government as one that put down blasphemy and sin. Vane, however, believed in freedom in its liberal sense, as the right to use oneself as one pleased. Government's function was to protect this right, and if it went beyond this, the people might properly change it. He wrote, “All just executive power [arises] from the free will and gift of the people, [who might] either keep the power in themselves or give up their subjection into the hands and will of another, if they judge that thereby they shall better answer the end of government, to wit, the welfare and safety of the whole.”

While this “contractual” view was common among the Dissenters, Vane's interpretation led him to believe in universal toleration. This belief wrecked his American career when he defended a Mrs. Hutchinson who was tried for blasphemy when she set herself up as a new prophet of God. He lost the next election, and increasingly isolated, he returned to England in August, 1637.

His English career followed a similar pattern. Prominent in the civil war against Charles I, he finally grew disillusioned with the course of revolution that seemed determined to establish an intolerant sect worse than the royal government. No dogmatic republican, he opposed the trial and execution of the King in 1649, arguing that “[it] is not the from of the administration as the thing administered, wherein the good or evil of government doth counsel.”

His other efforts were generally unsuccessful-as when he opposed the attempt to make Irish Catholics attend Protestant worship. In 1654, he left politics. Persecuted by the Cromwell dictatorship, he fared still worse after the Restoration of 1660. Convicted of treason, he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

Hero of Liberty image attribution: Peter Lely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923

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