William Penn

William Penn (1644-1718) founded Pennsylvania and played a leading role in the history of New Jersey and Delaware.

The heritage of William Penn was his part in the growth of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and role in the settlement of North America. Penn's influence with the British royal family and his pamphlets on behalf of religious toleration were important factors in the consolidation of the Quaker movement. He gave witness in America to the liberal faith and social conscience he had propounded in England in a career committed to religious and political values that have become inseparable from the American way of life.

William Penn was born in London on Oct. 14, 1644, the son of Adm. William Penn and Margaret Jasper. Adm. Penn served in the parliamentary navy during the Puritan Revolution. Although rewarded by Cromwell and given estates in Ireland, he fell into disfavor and took part in the restoration of Charles II. An intimate of the Duke of York, Adm. Penn was knighted by Charles II. With so influential a father, there seemed little doubt that William's prospects were attractive.


Early Manhood

Nothing better demonstrates how young Penn represented his period than his early religious enthusiasm. At the age of 13 he was profoundly moved by the Quaker Thomas Loe. Afterward, at Oxford, he came under Puritan influences. When he refused to conform to Anglican practices, the university expelled him in 1662.

At his father's request Penn attended the Inns of Court, gaining knowledge of the law. A portrait of this time shows him dressed in armor, with handsome, strong features, and the air of confidence of a fledgling aristocrat.

Quaker Advocate

Appearances, in Penn's case, were deceiving. While supervising his father's Irish estates, Penn was drawn into the Quaker fold. His conversion was inspired by the simple piety of the Quakers and the need to provide relief for victims of persecution. At the age of 22, much to his father's distress, Penn became a Quaker advocate. His marriage in 1672 to Gulielma Maria Springett, of a wellknown Quaker family, completed his religious commitment.

Penn's prominence and political connections were important resources for the persecuted Quakers. A major theme of his voluminous writings was the inhumanity and futility of persecution. One remarkable achievement during this period was Penn's handling of the "Bushell Case." Penn managed to persuade a jury not to subject a Quaker to imprisonment only for his faith. When the magistrate demanded that the jury change its verdict, Penn maintained successfully that a jury must not be coerced by the bench. This landmark case established the freedom of English juries.


Colonial Proprietor

Religious persecution and colonization went hand in hand as the Quakers looked to America for a haven. Various problems invited Penn's association with the Quaker interests in New Jersey. Apart from his influence in England, Penn was active in mediating quarrels among the trustees. Doubtless, too, Penn contributed to the "Concessions and Agreements" (1677) offered to settlers, although he was not its principal author. This document gave the settlers virtual control over this colony through an elected assembly. It also offered a forthright guarantee of personal liberties, especially religious toleration and trial by jury, which the Quakers could not obtain in England.

The manifest liabilities of New Jersey formed a prelude to the founding of Pennsylvania. Of major importance, however, was Penn's Quaker faith and unyielding devotion to religious and political freedom; this underlaid his conception of Pennsylvania as a "Holy Experiment." In addition, Penn thought the colony could become a profitable enterprise to be inherited by his family.

Penn's proprietary charter contained many elements of previous grants. Penn and his heirs were given control over the land and extensive powers of government. The document reflected the period in which it was written: in keeping with new imperial regulations, Penn was made personally responsible for the enforcement of the Navigation Acts and had to keep an agent in London; he was required to send laws to England for royal approval.

In several ways Pennsylvania was the most successful English colony. Penn's initial treaties with the Indians, signed in 1683 and 1684, were based on an acceptance of Indian equality and resulted in an unprecedented era of peace. Penn also wrote promotional tracts for Pennsylvania and arranged circulation of these materials abroad. The response was one of the largest and most varied ethnic migrations in the history of colonization. Moreover, Pennsylvania's economic beginnings were usually successful. A fertile country, the commercial advantages of Philadelphia, and substantial investments by Quaker merchants produced rapid economic growth.

Despite this success Pennsylvania was not without problems. An immediate concern was its borders, especially those with Maryland. Because of anomalies in Penn's charter, an area along the southern border, including Philadelphia, was claimed by Lord Baltimore. This problem was only partly ameliorated when Penn secured control over what later became Delaware from the Duke of York. Just as troublesome were political controversies within the colony. Although Penn's liberal spirit was evident in the political life of Pennsylvania, and he believed that the people should be offered self-government and that the rights of every citizen should be guaranteed, he did not think the colonists should have full power. In order to provide a balance in government, and partly to protect his own rights, he sought a key role in running the colony. What Penn envisaged in his famous "Frame of Government" (1682) was a system in which he would offer leadership and the elected assembly would follow his pattern.

Almost from the start there were challenges to Penn's conception. Controversies developed among the respective branches of government, with the representatives trying to restrict the authority of the proprietor and the council. Disputes centered on taxation, land policy, Penn's appointments, and defense. "For the love of God, me, and the poor country, " Penn wrote to the colonists, "be not so governmentish, so noisy, and open in your dissafection." Other difficulties included Penn's identification with James II, which brought him imprisonment and a temporary loss of the proprietorship in 1692-1694. No less burdensome was his indebtedness. Penn's liabilities in the founding of Pennsylvania led to his imprisonment for debt, a humiliating blow.


Final Years

After the Glorious Revolution in England, Penn and his family went to live in Pennsylvania. Arriving in 1699, he reestablished friendly contacts with the Indians and worked hard to heal a religious schism among the Quakers. He also labored to suppress piracy and tried to secure expenditures for colonial self-defense, demanded by the Crown but resisted by pacifist Quakers.

Penn's major achievement was the new charter of 1701. Under its terms the council was eliminated, and Pennsylvania became the only colony governed by a unicameral legislature of elected representatives. This system, which lasted until 1776, permitted the Delaware settlers to have their own legislature. Penn was obliged to return to England late in 1701 to fight a proposal in Parliament which would have abrogated all proprietary grants. He never saw Pennsylvania again.

Penn's last years were filled with disappointment. His heir, William, Jr., was a special tribulation because of his dissolute life-style. After the death of his first wife in 1694, Penn married Hannah Callowhill in 1696. Perplexed by debts, colonial disaffection, and the general antipathy of the King's ministers toward private colonies, Penn almost completed the sale of Pennsylvania to the Crown in 1712 before he suffered his first disabling stroke. He died at Ruscombe, Berkshire, on July 30, 1718.


Further Reading on William Penn

Though many books treat Penn, a fully satisfactory biography has yet to be written. An enjoyable account, emphasizing Penn's personal life and character, is Catherine O. Peare, William Penn (1957). Of value on Penn's political and religious ideals are Edward C. Beatty, William Penn as a Social Philosopher (1939), and Mary M. Dunn, William Penn: Politics and Conscience (1967).

Works dealing with selected subjects include Edwin B. Bronner, William Penn's "Holy Experiment": The Founding of Pennsylvania, 1681-1701 (1962); Joseph E. Illick, William Penn the Politician (1965); and Gary B. Nash, Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726 (1968). A superior general account of the founding of Pennsylvania and other colonies is Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History (4 vols., 1934-1938). The most recent synthesis is in Wesley F. Craven, The Colonies in Transition, 1660-1713 (1968).