Born: 1666, South Leith, Midlothian, Scotland. Died: December 25, 1784, New Jersey. Member of the Colonial Assembly: Philadelphia County, 1710-1711, 1716-1717, 1719-1720; Philadelphia City, 1717-1718. Affiliation: Anglican.
William Trent was born in the year 1666 in Midlothian, Scotland, where he was baptized on October 28, 1666. Following in his father’s footsteps, Trent became involved in the mercantile trading business. By 1693 Trent had immigrated to Pennsylvania. After moving to Pennsylvania, he continued his mercantile business and expanded it into real estate investment. Trent married the former Mary Burge, and together the couple had 4 children: James, John, Maurice, and Mary. After the death of his first wife in 1708, Trent married his second wife, the former Mary Coddington, in 1710, and together the couple had 2 children, Thomas and William.
Trent was asked to serve on the Provincial Council in 1704. He accepted the offer and served on the council until 1721. He also served as a justice of the Supreme Court in the years 1704, 1706, 1715, 1718, and 1720. Trent was elected to the Colonial Assembly in 1710, 1716, 1717, 1719, and 1720. In the Assembly, Trent worked on a number of bills including a bill to Petition the Queen for permission to import salt into Pennsylvania, a bill to amend supply regulations, and a bill to raise money for the Queen to use for military purposes.
Trent was often involved in the debate as to whether Quakers should swear an oath or be allowed to use an affirmation. The Quakers opposition to oaths was based on a plain reading of Matthew 5:33-37, in which Jesus said, “swear not at all….But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (KJV) So the practice of swearing an oath would effectively ban Quakers from accessing some of the most basic institutions of government. Trent, an Anglican, initially was critical of the affirmation laws passed by the Assembly and the Quakers reluctance to engage in military for the defense of the colony; however, in just a few years, when British laws requiring an oath would have prohibited Quakers from testifying at trials, Trent, along with other prominent Anglicans, expressed support for the affirmation due to the impracticality of attempting to govern Pennsylvania without Quakers.
Trent was elected the 16th Speaker of the Assembly on October 17, 1717, and was again elected Speaker for the 1719 term on October 14, 1719. During his first term as Speaker, the Assembly passed 16 laws — the most notable of which were acts that imposed taxes on imports. During his second term as Speaker, in the 1719 session, the Assembly’s legislative agenda was extremely light, and there were no bills enacted into law; however, the House did petition Governor William Keith to establish a Court of Chancery. The Governor agreed to do so and made himself the presiding Chancellor.
Relocating to New Jersey in late 1721, Trent served in a number of political positions including justice of the peace, judge of the Court of Common Pleas, member of the New Jersey Assembly, Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, and chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
William Trent died on December 25, 1724, in New Jersey. His burial location is unknown.