From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Historians frequently contend that each generation rewrites the record of the past. It’s rarely because they think early versions are incorrect or full of errors, though. Sometimes it is because new sources or records have come to light that change our understanding of events and individuals. But most often it’s because each generation looks to the past with a different set of questions that beg answers. Historians and biographers seek to create a usable past – a past that offers lessons relevant to our generation.

This year the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) invites Pennsylvania historians to take a fresh, unbiased look at the early years of the colony established by William Penn (1644–1718) and, more specifically, to examine the role of his second wife Hannah Callowhill Penn (1671–1726) in the early administration of Pennsylvania. Our generation accepts and expects the leadership of women in government and business, but for most preceding generations it was not so. We do know the Religious Society of Friends offered greater equality of men and women than was typical of the time, but were the Quakers open to the concept of a woman governing a sizeable colony?

Historians have properly credited William Penn as a visionary who created a colony based on religious tolerance, economic opportunities, ethnic diversity, and values we now embrace as uniquely American. But history also documents that William Penn was not a practical and successful administrator. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1712 the fledgling colony was in a precarious financial position and feuding with its neighboring colonies over borders and boundaries. Making matters worse, the crown was questioning whether England should reclaim the colony.

Following her husband’s stroke, Hannah assumed responsibility for governing Pennsylvania for six years. After he died in 1718 she continued to manage family and government affairs for eight more years until her death in 1726, also caused by a stroke. Her administration proved to be successful. At her demise Pennsylvania was financially stable and at peace with its neighbors. More important, its authority had become firmly established. Pennsylvania remained a well administered proprietary colony until the American Revolution. The time has come for an ambitious, in-depth look at the leadership role of Hannah Callowhill Penn in the early history of Pennsylvania.

In March Governor Tom Corbett recognized her capable leadership and astute management by proclaiming Hannah Callowhill Penn Day in Pennsylvania and opening a new exhibition at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg entitled Hannah Penn: “blest with a strong judgment and excellent good sense.” The exhibit borrowed materials relating to Hannah Penn from a number of museums as well as the Pennsylvania State Archives, administered by PHMC. Although the exhibit – its title extracted from a letter written in 1713 by Penn’s agent in Pennsylvania, James Logan – was on view for only several weeks, it marked the launch of year-long programming sponsored by a coalition of historical organizations, cultural institutions, and scholars focusing on the years Hannah Penn served as executrix, proprietress, and in practice, governor of Pennsylvania.

We intend to host a symposium on Hannah Penn in the spring of 2014 to discuss recent scholarship on her role in early Pennsylvania government and encourage more research. We believe her story needs to be better known as it most likely will inspire young women considering a career in government service in the twenty-first century.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC