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

This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the Charter of Privileges, a document issued by William Penn on October 28, 1701, that served as the Commonwealth’s constitution for seventy-five years. Few documents in our history have had greater significance in defining the political traditions of Pennsylvania. The influence of the Charter of Privileges is even evident in the basic formation of the American system of government and law.

William Penn agreed to sign the Carter of Privileges after several years of growing tension with the Assembly over the extent of his and the Provincial Council’s governing authority. The charter reaffirmed the Assembly’s power to draw up legislation while the Council would serve only in an advisory capacity. Although the governor could veto legislation, he could not suspend or dissolve the Assembly. The charter also provided for the appointment of county officials such as sheriffs and clerks.

In its first most memorable provision, the charter reconfirmed the founder’s unequivocal commitment to religious toleration “because noe people can be truly happy … if Abridged of the Freedom of theire Consciences as to theire Religious Profession and Worship.” While the governor and six-sevenths of the Assembly could amend all of the charter’s other provisions, the first provision “Relateing to Liberty of Conscience and every part and Clause therein according to the True Intent of meaneing thereof shall be kept and remaine without any Alteration Inviolably for ever.”

The Charter of Privileges is a remarkable document that, along with other important legislation of the period, reflected the values of self-government and individual liberty. Although many observers predicted that the new constitution would not last long, the Charter of Privileges became a model for other colonies and remained a cornerstone of Pennsylvania political life. In recognition of the document’s fiftieth anniversary in 1751, the Assembly voted to cast a large bell that would become internationally recognized as an enduring icon of American democratic tradition – the Liberty Bell.

To celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the Charter of Privileges, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) is joining other organizations to call attention to its extraordinary legacy. In March 2001, the PHMC will borrow the original version of the document from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia for display at The State Museum of Pennsylvania as part of the annual Heritage Week celebration in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania State Archives will co-sponsor special programs throughout the Commonwealth to remind Pennsylvanians of our significant documentary heritage. Preserving these documents is, perhaps, the best way we can honor the past.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director