Tercentenary Begins – Pennsylvania Born With Charter Signing: March 1681

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On June 1, 1680, William Penn submitted to King Charles II a formal petition requesting a grant of territory in America. His purpose was to establish a colony which would be open to settlers of all beliefs, but would be primarily a refuge for Quakers, among whom Penn was one of the leading figures.

The basis of this petition was a debt owed by the Crown to Penn’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn, for monies (and interest thereon) that had been advanced to buy rations for the sailors under the Admiral’s command. Sir William had died in 1670, but the debt was at least nominally owed to his estate and therefore to his sole surviving son.

It was true that in the process of regaining and consoli­dating his position on the throne the King had incurred so many such debts that he had felt justified in declaring a general moratorium. Legally, he was under no compulsion to pay. On the other hand, a number of considerations gave Penn’s petition a special character.

For one thing, King Charles and his brother, the Duke of York (who would later reign as King James II), felt a strong sense of gratitude to Admiral Penn for the services he had rendered to them, and had a genuine fondness for the Admiral’s son. Further, while it was necessary for the Crown not to offend Parliament, which was rigid in its Protestant conformity, Charles II was personally much more tolerant toward religious nonconformists. Finally, although the Quakers did not represent any threat to authority, their insistence on holding to the tenets of their beliefs was a frequent cause of controversy – a cause which could only be lessened as numbers of them emigrated.

Adding strength to Penn’s request was the support of a close friend from student days at Oxford, Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, who was now an influential official at court. Coupled with this was the fact that Penn was willing and financially able to provide the “gratuities”-amounting collectively to almost sixteen hundred pounds-to various functionaries which would insure that the various stages of the administrative processing of the petition would be com­pleted without undue delay and with favorable recommen­dations.

In view of the complexity of what was involved, progress was remarkably rapid. Only two substantial delays occurred. Penn himself drafted most of the document (the “patent”) awarding the grant, but the draft was held up for a time for the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General to insert modifications of some passages to make sure that the interests retained by the Crown were fully protected. The other occurred when King Charles directed that, to com­memorate the Admiral, the new colony should be called “Pennsylvania.” Learning of this, Penn feared that some Quakers, always ready to criticize his wealth and social standing, might accuse him of self-glorification, and offered a gratuity to Sir Leoline Jenkins, the official preparing the document for the King’s signature, to change the name either to “Sylvania” or to “New Wales.” Whether the gratuity was too small or Sir Leoline’s fear of disregarding King Charles’s stated wishes too great, the name was un­altered.

On March 4, 1681 by the calendar then in use (March 14 by the modern calendar), Charles II signed the Charter, and William Penn became the proprietor of the largest territory ever owned personally by any British subject.