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In his proclamation marking the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Penn in 1944, Gov. Edward Martin described him as “one of the truly great men of history … whose tolerance, wisdom, enlightenment and vision as a statesman of the common weal render him an outstanding figure among the builders of states.” The tercentenary celebration of his glorious Com­monwealth seems an appropriate time to examine Penn’s con­stitutional legacy. Beginning with the original Charter for the founding of Pennsylvania some three hundred years ago, nine basic documents have provided for the system of government in the Commonwealth. Of these, more than half (five to be ex­act) are the work of the proprietor, William Penn. These charters, or frames of government, provide the basis for Penn’s rather substantial constitutional legacy.

Beyond Pennsylvania’s basic charters, the mark of William Penn’s constitutional legacy can also be seen in the charters for New Jersey and the governance of Delaware, the evolution of union among the colonies, the Declaration of independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of 1787 and even in his proposal for an international league of nations. If this constitutional breadth is not enough to establish this peerless visionary as “one of the truly great men of history,” then the legislative accomplishments marked by the statutes enacted in the first twenty years of his “Holy Experiment” further establish his almost unparalleled position.

A letter to a close friend written shortly after the issuance of the Charter for Pennsylvania offers a clear demonstration of Penn’s combination of faith and worldliness. He believed, as he wrote, that if “lam fume in my faith that the Ld will pros­per it, if I & they that are & may be ingaged, do not greeve Him by an unworthy use of it.”

The “use of it,” of course, was the embodiment of his political and religious ideas in the formation of a community. While still in England, be indicated to another friend, “There may be room there, though not here, for such an holy experi­ment.” He also wrote to several Friends with whom he had been associated in West Jersey, “As my understanding and in­clination have been much directed to observe and reprove mischiefs in government, so it is now put into my power to set­tle one. For the matters of liberty and privilege, I propose that which is extraordinary, and to leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of an whole country.” “But,” he added, “to publish these things now, and here, as matters stand, would not be wise; and I am advised to reserve that till I come there.” The reason was clear; Penn placed the divine right of govern­ment over the Stuart conception of the divine right of kings.

In his preface to the First Frame of Government, adopted in 1682, Penn had stated his essential principle clearly: “I know what is said by the several admirers of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which are the rule of the one, a few, and many, and are the three common ideas of government, when men discourse on that subject. But I choose to solve the con­troversy with this small distinction, and it belongs to all three; any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, and confusion.”

William Penn understood that elemental political principle that “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather de­pend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavour to warp and spoil it to their turn.” He knew quite simply that “though good laws do well, good men do better,” and he said so in the preface of that First Frame.

William Penn’s constitutional reach was incredible and we are the fortunate beneficiaries. Gov. William W. Scranton, in dedicating the William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building in Harrisburg on October 13, 1965, called Penn “the most creative statesman in American history.” To Scranton, ”the founder of this great Commonwealth was a genuine believer. He believed in God and he believed in man. And this belief, this faith was to be a beacon of hope, not only for the courageous souls who carved out this civilization from the wilderness, or this hemisphere, but as a living example for all the nations of the world. An example that declared that free men of good conscience could live together in harmony and goodwill, regardless of their racial or national origins.”

It was that principle which was enshrined in a great docu­ment of Pennsylvania and American history beginning with the words “We the People,” signifying the authority and the primary resource of a free nation. If that had been William Penn’s only constitutional legacy to us, it would have sufficed. But Penn did more, much more.

Penn’s experiment in government, his “Holy Experiment” as he termed it, was a bold and unique attempt to put into actual practice his principles of democracy, liberty, justice and peace. His intention was ”to lay the foundation of a free colony for all mankind.” His political ideals and principles found ex­pression in a constitution and a body of laws which guaranteed civil liberty, religious freedom and economic opportunity.

As Paul Wallace once said, freedom to experiment is one of the marks of a healthy society. All experiments are not suc­cessful, however, particularly when they go against nature. An old Iroquois proverb suggests, “When you fill your kettle with water from the stream, dip with the current.” William Penn was a reformer who “dipped with the current.” That was his genius. He organized a free society in which man’s natural bent for experimentation was encouraged but controlled. The control came from the diverse population which he deliberate­ly sought. For any time any experiment reached dangerous proportions, there was always a counterbalancing movement in a different direction. This tempering of extremes is one of the Commonwealth’s healthiest characteristics.

There is more, however, to Penn’s constitutional legacy than ideals or theories of freedom, justice and democracy. By examining the documentary progress of constitutional evolution in the Pennsylvania of Penn’s day, it becomes possible to realize the specifics of his impact down to the present. In the original Charter granted by King Charles II, through the first three frames of government, down to the Charter of Privileges in 1701, the most endurable, unaltered constitution in the history of the state, the specifics are clear; they run the gamut from religious to political freedom.

The Charter granted by the King made Penn the “true and absolute proprietary” with sole authority to make laws “by and with the advice, consent, and approbation of the freemen” of the province; appoint officers and establish courts; lay out towns and counties and incorporate boroughs; erect seaports and levy customs; as well as “to leavy, muster and traine all sorts of men” with the military authority of a Captain General. He could also create manors and dispose of provincial lands in any way he saw fit. These, and all other acts pertaining to sovereignty, were his to perform. Yet, as an idealist, he seemed anxious to relinquish some of his absolute rights under the Charter and actually did so under the First Frame of Government.

But the Charter was significant for more than its delegation of absolute authority to William Penn. It was a compromise, according to Charles M. Andrews, “partly medieval and partly modern, a curious comingling [sic] of the past and present, representing on one side the precedents of the lawyers and on the other the ideas which gradually were becoming a part of England’s colonial programme.” Who influenced Penn most has produced an enduring historical debate. Edwin Bronner mentions Benjamin Furly, Thomas Rudyard and Algernon Sydney. Gail Beckman also includes the Greek historian Polybius, Sir Thomas More and James Harrington, with par­ticular emphasis upon Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana which outlined a utopian society based on a sort of patrician agrarianism and the ballot. Mary Maples Dunn also stresses Harrington’s impact. Garry Wills quotes Dr. Ben­jamin Rush in his Observations on the Government of Penn­sylvania citing Locke on principles, Harrington and Montes­quieu as to the forms of government.

No matter who influenced him, there is little doubt that Penn’s basic philosophy of government affirmed his belief .that both God and man contribute to the successful operation of it. Nevertheless, he was realistic enough to recognize that bad men make bad governments, so his faith was placed in “men of wisdom and virtue.” To Penn, government was “a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end.”

After espousing his political principles in the preamble to the Frame of Government of 1682, the first constitution of Pennsylvania, Penn proceeded to divest himself of some of his extensive powers granted under the Charter. It began a process that continued over the next two decades, culminating in the Charter of Privileges in 1701 which carried the province into the days of independence and revolution, except for the brief interlude in 1693-94 when Penn’s charter was temporarily revoked and his commonwealth was placed under the direction of Governor Fletcher of New York.

Penn’s vision permeated an evolutionary process in the organization and establishment of a political system which continues to this day. It is clearly evident in a society whose gratitude is seldom outwardly expressed beyond century cycles of anniversaries of his birth and the founding of Pennsylvania. Yet, it encompasses such things as the secret ballot, rotation in office, limited terms and the conduct of elections in a self­-governing society in which the elective principle prevails. Although religious freedom is fundamental, the Blue Laws have surely been an outgrowth. An independent judiciary, as part of a government characterized by a separation of powers, led to the development of justices of the peace, now known as magistrates or district justices, who provide a local arm of justice. Even the reimbursement of victims of crimes is nothing new, for it, too, is part of Penn’s legacy of humane penal laws. Property laws, including the testamentary (with a will) and in­testate (without a will) transfer of property, can be traced to the founder. Taxes for revenue and even the foot-frontage method of assessment are just part of a system of internal im­provements which began with roads and bridges. It is a long List, and even this one is incomplete. The fact remains that almost all subsequent legislation can be traced to statutes enacted between 1682 and 1700.

The First Frame of Government, which emerged from more than a score of preliminary drafts, marked the initial stage in the transition from autocratic to popular government. Within twenty years of the Charter date, Pennsylvania was to move from a system of monarchical power vested in William Penn to the more democratic control of the province through a popularly elected assembly. The transfer of authority from Penn to the people was accomplished in five basic documents: the Charter of 1681 and four colonial constitutions of Penn­sylvania. They, and the statutes enacted under them, con­stitute the documentary framework of William Penn’s con­stitutional legacy.

The Council of 72 and Assembly of 200 members, the basic governmental bodies provided for in that First Frame, proved too unwieldy and the Assembly hardly had time for adequate consideration of proposed legislation. In order to remedy those problems, within a year a Second Frame introduced the concept of geographical representation and legislative appor­tionment among the original counties of Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks in an Assembly of 36 members. The Council was reduced to 18, and Penn relinquished his triple vote, agreeing to act only “by and with the advice and consent of the Provin­cial [Assembly].”

In the third constitution, or Markham’s Frame as it is more commonly known, the Assembly gained the right to initiate legislation on a par wi1h the Council, as well as to determine the times of its own adjournment. The result was a bicameral legislature which set the pattern for today, despite its tem­porary disappearance from the Charter of Privileges and the revolutionary document of 1776. (The unicameral legislatures established in those documents ended with the more conser­vative constitution of 1790.) The brief period of Gov. Ben­jamin Fletcher’s rule following the New Yorker’s assumption of executive authority in 1693 also led to the strengthening of the legislative role of the Assembly, a power it has not relin­quished since that time.

It was the Charter of Privileges of 1701, however, which more than any of these other documents provided the blueprint for our modern constitutions. The Council became an advisory body to the governor constituting a real executive branch; the legislative branch was comprised of the unicameral Assembly; and the judiciary consisted of the appointed judges and the locally elected county judicial officers. The division of government under the principle of a separation of powers was early established in the Commonwealth. The Proprietor and the Crown were explicitly granted the power to veto provincial laws, a power which the governor retains to this day although the legislature can override that authority with sufficient votes.

Under William Penn, the Commonwealth had progressed from paternalism toward democracy in twenty short years. ln the only American colony to bear its founder’s name, he had laid the foundation for the future. His efforts for good government, his concern for just laws, his determination to en­courage economic progress and a population large enough to promote it, are all part of the history of the Commonwealth.

William Penn’s constitutional legacy extends even beyond the borders of the Commonwealth he envisioned, however. In­itiating a system of intercolonial correspondence long before the revolutionary committees, Penn suggested a kind of federal system for the empire. This notion grew into the Con­stitution of 1787 and, in the twentieth century, into the Statute of Westminster of 1931 which made Britain’s self-governing dominions equal and independent members of the British Em­pire. Penn’s constitutional concerns embraced not only the state and the nation but international order as well. In his “An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe,” (1693), he proposed a league of European nations which in­cluded the Sultan of Turkey and the Czar of Russia in an inter­national congress to unite Europe for peaceful purposes.

His influence can be seen in the grievances contained in the Declaration of Independence and the guaranteed freedoms asserted in the Constitution of the United States, particularly in aspects such as the separation of powers, the authority of the people, and individuals’ rights as asserted in the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, in a plan for intercolonial unity which Penn proposed at the end of the seventeenth century were sown the seeds for the first constitution of this nation, the Ar­ticles of Confederation. His Plan of Union for the American Colonies in 1697 provided the background for the plan pro­posed at the Albany Congress in 1754 and, later, for the Ar­ticles. In fact, the essence of the limited Pennsylvania Con­stitutional Convention of 1967-68 was in the Penn tradition in its provisions for reapportionment, taxation and finance, home rule, and judicial selection. Penn’s early judgment was to “let the people decide” and that practice continues.

The idea of Pennsylvania was William Penn’s. When he came in 1682 to “plant a country,” it was his belief that man is a better creature when he is free and that freedom flourishes best in a diversified society. He brought into his pro­vince men differing in race, language and religion. The early Quakers, after visiting Puritans of New England, saw how easy it was for a homogeneous people to deny to others the freedoms they demanded for themselves. Penn, in establishing his com­munity, went to work another way. “We must give the liberties we ask,” he said. That was the heart of the Holy Experiment.

The record is impressive: a founder of New Jersey, Penn­sylvania and Delaware; an early advocate of union for the American colonies as well as religious toleration, civil liberty and representative government; the vision of an international organization to preserve peace; and ideas about education, penology, race relations, city planning and conservation in ad­vance of most. William Penn recognized the principle of representative government, even though that did not mean direct participation by everyone. He appreciated the separa­tion of the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government in a system to check and balance those authorities: Most of all, he preserved the right of in­dividuals to be different, promoting a diversity which was often his undoing.

Although Pennsylvania’s founding father may not have been the perfect all-seeing, all-knowing, all-responsible expo­nent of the American political system, his position is firm. As much as any man in our history, William Penn espoused and struggled for the principles which led to the creation of a na­tion governed under the longest existing written constitution, the first considerable nation to state clearly and authoritatively the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the words of “We the People.” Before too long, the nation will celebrate two cen­turies of life under that constitution, a document which owes some of its fundamentals to a gentle Quaker, William Penn.

Yes, his is indeed a very powerful legacy, and we are his living memorial.


This article is an adaptation of an address given at the Wor­thington Scranton Campus of The Pennsylvania State Univer­sity for the Scranton-Lackawanna Jewish Council’s Celebra­tion of William Penn’s Legacy.


George D. Wolf is a professor of American Studies and History at the Capitol Campus of The Pennsylvania State University. He has published various books on the history of the Commonwealth and its constitutions and most recently authored William Warren Scranton: Pennsylvania Statesman.