OLL's October (Belated) Birthday: William Penn (October 14, 1644 – July 30, 1718)
October’s OLL Birthday Essay features the English theologian, philosopher, activist, and founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn. Over the course of his life, Penn emerged as an indefatigable champion of religious freedom, democracy and individual rights.
Penn was born in London to Admiral William Penn and a Dutch mother, Margaret Jaspers, daughter of a wealthy merchant, in the early years of the English Civil War (1642-1650), a period of extreme political and social turmoil. Admiral Penn was a brave and capable mariner who fought on behalf of Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth in 1653, and was granted several estates in Ireland for his service. But after Cromwell’s death in 1658, Admiral Penn came to support a restoration of the monarchy and, in fact, led an expedition to bring Charles II back from his exile in 1660. This service to the crown was never forgotten and played an important role in the younger Penn’s life.
In the meantime, the young William Penn lived with his family in London and later in Essex. He was educated by tutors and was a student at Chigwell School and later, in 1660, at Oxford. He was a solitary, bookish young man, who was from a young age deeply interested in the religious and political turmoil around him, unleashed by the English Revolution and Civil War. His early exposure to Puritanism and to the Quakers inclined him to religious Nonconformity. In particular, he became a champion of individual freedom of worship, and bristled against the unassailable power of the Church of England and the Anglican professors he encountered at Oxford. His rejection of Anglicanism led to his expulsion from Oxford in 1662.
His outspoken defense of such radical ideas as freedom of conscience greatly concerned his father and mother who sent him to school in Paris for two years, and then to manage the family estates in Ireland, hoping that such experiences would dull his religious ardor. His sojourn in Paris seems mainly to have effected a change in his fashion sense (despite his dour personality and overall ascetic life-style he was subsequently known as a sharp dresser), and his time in Ireland did little to turn him from his radical proclivities regarding personal liberty. In fact, while in Ireland, his latent interest in the Quakers became more serious, and he joined the Society of Friends in 1666, much to his parents’ consternation.
Now a member of a persecuted religious minority (and a close personal friend of the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox), he became a popular preacher and increased his radical agitation for freedom of religion. These activities frequently landed him in jail (from which he was usually freed in short order, thanks to the interventions of his influential, though increasingly exasperated father). He became a zealous defender of the Quakers and their beliefs, preaching and writing prolifically. He eventually published 42 books and pamphlets, many of which developed key aspects of the Quakers’ beliefs. He wrote one of his most important works, No Cross, No Crown in 1669 while imprisoned in the Tower of London. In it, he propounds on a puritanical Quaker morality, mixed with ideas of social reform. The next year, out of prison, he wrote The Great Cause of Liberty of Conscience Once More Debated and Defended, an eloquent argument for religious freedom.
In the midst of these socio-religious activities, Penn got married in 1672 to a fellow Quaker, Gulielma Maria Springett (1644-1694). Despite her husband’s relentless activism (or perhaps because of it) they had a happy marriage. They had eight children together, four of whom survived to adulthood.
By the mid 1670s, the persecution of the Quakers had reached such a ferocious level that Penn and other prominent members of the Society of Friends began to pursue plans to set up a haven for Quakers in North America. After some initial attempts, in 1681 King Charles II granted an enormous tract of land (45,000 sq. miles) west of the Delaware River to Penn for the purposes of establishing a colony. Charles’ motivations were not entirely clear. He probably saw the colony as a way to get the rambunctious and increasingly powerful young Quaker (and his fellow Friends) far away from England. But he also clearly considered (in a somewhat questionable fashion) the land-grant as a way to pay off a huge debt to Penn’s father. The younger Penn named the territory “Sylvania” to which King Charles added “Penn” in honor, not of the younger Penn, but of his father.
With this royal grant, William Penn became the sole official authority in the new colony, and probably the largest private (i.e., non-royal) landowner in the world. Despite the fact that he was the sole proprietor of the entire territory, he chose to run the colony according to republican and democratic principles. In 1682 he drafted the “Frame of Government,” a remarkable document establishing the colony as a kind of constitutional commonwealth in which the inhabitants of the inhabitants would enjoy a host of personal liberties, not least of which was complete freedom of religion, as well as a considerable role in managing the public affairs of the colony. In the same year, he sailed for North America to inspect the development of the colony. He found it already being settled, with the new city of Philadelphia being laid out on a grid pattern, as he had specified. The colony very rapidly became a destination for persecuted minority religious groups from all over Western Europe. Contacts that Penn had made with various religious groups during a trip to the Netherlands and Germany in 1670 led to an influx of immigrants from those regions, most notably the Mennonites and Amish. Importantly, while Pennsylvania was established at least ostensibly to provide a refuge for English Quakers, Penn always insisted that anyone seeking freedom to worship was welcome.
Another important aspect of Penn’s leadership of the colony was his relationship with the Lenape (Delaware) Indians. Besides his command of several European languages, he also learned the local Indian languages, the better to interact and negotiate with them. His insistence on peaceful relations with the Indians, as well as his strictures that colonists needed to pay the Indians for any land they settled, led to very good relations between the two groups, a rare situation in most of the European settlements in the New World.
In 1684 he returned to England, in part to settle a boundary dispute between Pennsylvania and Lord Baltimore’s nearby colony of Maryland. In 1685, Penn’s friend the Duke of York came to the throne as James II and Penn suddenly became a powerful and influential figure. This was cut short after the Glorious Revolution (1688), and Penn was thereafter regarded with deep suspicion by the new regime of William and Mary. For a time he even had to go into hiding. Matters were made worse by the death of his wife in 1694, though he married another Quaker, Hannah Margaret Callowhill (1671-1726) in 1696. By 1699 he was able to travel back to Pennsylvania.
The situation there was decidedly mixed. Penn’s poor choices of subordinates (he was unfortunately never a good judge of character) meant that the administration of the colony had been badly managed. The affairs of the colony were in disarray, there were disagreements between different religious groups on a number of issues, and the ‘Lower Counties’ had seceded to form the new colony of Delaware. On the other hand, the colony’s population was growing quickly and Philadelphia was developing into a pleasant and prosperous town. Penn and his new wife moved into a stately home, Pennsbury Manor located about 25 miles north of Philadelphia (in present day Falls Township, Bucks County) and Penn got to work straightening out the affairs of the colony. Mrs. Penn, however, did not enjoy her duties as a governor’s wife, and preferred her quiet domestic life in England. His wife’s unhappiness, and news of financial and family problems combined in 1701 to prompt their move back to England. There, he was confronted with some serious problems. His son William, whom he had hoped would one day succeed him as governor of Pennsylvania, had turned out to be a dissolute gambler who had accumulated a mountain of debt. Hoping to force him to accept some responsibility, Penn sent him to Philadelphia to run the colony, but this only made things worse. Penn himself had loaned money to his many friends and acquaintances, who now proved unable or unwilling to pay, while Penn was reluctant to press them. Probably worst of all, Penn found that his steward had mismanaged and embezzled almost his entire fortune. All these events left him deeply discouraged and disillusioned, and he began preparations for turning the colony of Pennsylvania over to the crown. These negotiations were cut short in 1712 when he suffered a serious stroke that left him paralyzed. He lingered on, cared for by his wife, but unable to continue his writing or administrative work, and died in 1718.
While Penn’s successors as governors of Pennsylvania did not maintain its founder’s visions for the colony (especially his insistence on good relations with the Indians), his intellectual legacy is immense. His Frame of Government became tremendously important for the founders of the American Republic, especially Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who saw in it an inspiration for their own plans for an American Constitutional Democracy. Similarly, a 1696 plan for a union of the British colonies in North America became a model for the philosophers and statesmen who established the United States of America. Finally, his vision of a peaceful and prosperous world based on individual freedom remains as compelling today as it was during his lifetime.