The Vision of William Penn

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“… that an example may be set up to the nations an holy experiment.” – William Penn


A few days after receiving his charter for Pennsylvania in the spring of 1681, William Penn sent off a letter to some Irish Quaker merchants, happily informing them of his good fortune, asking their assistance and explaining his motives for establish­ing a colony. Penn’s message read, in part:

I have been these 13 years the ser­vant of truth and Friends, and for my testimony sake lost much, not only the greatness and preferments of this world, but £16,000 of my estate, that had I not been what I am, I had long ago obtained. But I murmur not, the Lord is good to me, and the interest [of] his truth with his people may more than repay it. For many are drawn forth to be concerned with me, and per­haps this way of satisfaction has more of the hand of God in it than a downright payment; this I can say, that I had an opening of joy as to these parts [America] in the year 1661, at Oxford, twenty years since; and as my understanding and in­clination have been much directed to observe and reprove mischiefs in government, so it is now put in my power to settle one. For the mailers of liberty and privilege, I propose that which is extraordinary, and to leave myself and my successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country. But 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.

This passage shows an interweaving of religious, economic and political thought and experience, the separate strands of which could hardly be disentangled. Most striking is Penn’s resentment at having forfeited money and power, his need to deny a feeling of anger (partly directed at fellow Quakers) stemming from this state of affairs and his vision of compensation for the loss he has suffered. In America he will retrieve his fortune and – the element of personal sacrifice cannot be overlooked – create a government in which he will deny him­self, the proprietor of the colony, the sort of arbitrary power which he faced in Restoration England. By thus taking account of the difficult adult years since his adolescence at Oxford, Penn could return to his youthful view of a happier world. In this way he invented America.

Such an interpretation of Penn’s vision does not belittle him; who of us does not occasionally hope for a return to an idyllic past, and how many of us have at­tempted to translate it into reality? Nor does such an interpretation deny the ele­ment of realism in Penn’s plans for a New World colony. But it does suggest that his hopes might rise too high, that his demands might be too great, that his disappointments might be too many and that his reaction might seem too severe. To avoid these judgments, William Penn must be seen as the human being he was, rather than as the saint he could be only occasionally.

Born in 1644, Penn spent his early childhood virtually alone with his mother, his father frequently absent at sea, and no brother or sister to intrude on that relationship until he was eight. The great concern for his personal well-being was manifest when he was three and had a serious bout with smallpox; the family left London for the presuma­bly healthier countryside. Here, from his sixth to his twelfth year, young William studied Greek and Latin for as long as ten hours a day, a rigorous training reflected in the abundance and the con­tent of his later writings.

Suddenly his distant father descended upon the scene, a defeated hero who for political reasons was forced to remove his family to Ireland for four years. Young Penn continued his studies, but the abrupt interruption was the apparent cause of his initial religious experience. And in Ireland, for the first time, he heard a Quaker preach.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, Admiral Penn was knighted and named a commissioner of the navy. Wil­liam entered Oxford, rebelled against its Anglican scholasticism and dropped out. The angered Admiral, who expected an obedient son to be preparing for a career at court, sent the unrepentant young man off to the Continent. On his return, William spent several months of the fol­lowing year reading law at Lincoln’s Inn before traveling to Ireland to manage the family estates. Crossing paths again with the Quakers, he made his decision to join them.

No other act could have outraged his father more. But young Penn was either oblivious to parental disfavor or, as seems more likely, so sensitive to it that he needed to find a more approving father. He would stop at nothing to preach the truth about his Lord. And, like other Quakers, he was imprisoned for stating his beliefs in word or print.

Some 15 thousand Quakers were jailed during the Restoration, and nearly 500 of them died for their faith. Yet while fanaticism and martyrdom sustained the sect in its darkest hours, there was a growing sentiment to resist persecution by curbing the excesses of some Quakers (which led to schism within the Society of Friends) and by lobbying for tolera­tion by the government (which, when worldly considerations were introduced, led to the contamination of spiritual purity). It was in this context that Wil­liam Penn emerged as a Quaker leader. His gradual transformation from unre­strained zealot to moderate defender of the faith mirrored the new direction of Quakerism. Inevitably, some of his co­religionists disapproved of his resort to legal challenge and political lobbying in defense of religious dissent.

But while Penn’s tactics changed, his principles remained firm. Of the fifty­-odd tracts he wrote from the time of his conversion until the founding of Penn­sylvania, half were concerned with lib­erty of conscience, which to Penn meant total freedom of belief and of worship. Any interference with this freedom he regarded as persecution (though perse­cution also included other incursions on the individual’s civil, political or property rights). Penn did not reject completely the old idea of religious uniformity, for he believed that Christianity was basic to the preservation of society. However, he recognized that the Reformation had made it impossible for Christianity to assume only one form.

There was in England a prevailing belief, central to Tory thought, that the authority of the church was crucial to the authority of the state, that the king ruled by divine right. Penn, who aligned himself with the Whig theorists, was determined to show that the basis of government was civil rather than ecclesi­astical, that government was founded on a contract consented to by its citizens.

To say that these citizens saw govern­ment as the means of protecting their freedom (including their property) against persecution was to state, in theory, the inverse of what was happen­ing in practice: dissenters in England, often merchants and manufacturers, were suffering at the hands of the gov­ernment. Penn argued that the absence of religious freedom was detrimental to the economic prosperity of the kingdom.

It was with these economic, political and religious considerations in mind that Penn wrote of Pennsylvania as “an example … to the nations; there may be room there, though not here, for such an holy experiment.” His statement invites comparison with that of John Winthrop, who viewed the beginnings of the Massa­chusetts Bay Colony as the establish­ment of a “city upon a hill” for the rest of the world to view and to emulate. But republican government founded to pro­tect liberty of conscience was not the object of the Puritans (save for a few mavericks like Roger Williams). Rather, Winthrop and his peers who formed the governing elite of Massachusetts ex­pected an undeviating adherence to orthodox Calvinism, a “liberty to do that which is good, just, and honest.”

Penn was no anarchist, nor even a democrat. He was the sole proprietor of Pennsylvania, granted by Charles II the privilege to govern his colony as he saw fit. Yet be held true to his belief in the contract theory, as evidenced in the Frame of Government of 1682 and the Forty Laws agreed upon in England. The former document stated:

The government of this province shall, according to the powers of the patent, consist of the Governor [Penn or his deputy} and freemen [any Christian male over twenty­-one who held requisite property or paid a personal tax] of the said province, in the form of a Provin­cial Council and a General Assem­bly, by whom all laws shall be made, officers chosen, and public affairs transacted.

Trial by jury and freedom of worship were guaranteed in the Forty Laws, and property rights were bolstered in both documents.

Penn’s Frame of Government was modeled on James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana, published a quarter of a century earlier. Yet where Harrington called for a limit to the size of estates so as to preclude a landed aris­tocracy which might otherwise threaten popular government, Penn was silent on the matter. Indeed, of the first half-mil­lion acres he sold in Pennsylvania, almost fifty percent of it was parceled out in chunks of 5 to 10 thousand acres to less than one-tenth the total number of buyers. He created manors for mem­bers of his family and other favored per­sons, while withholding from sale one­-tenth of all lands as a proprietary reserve. He attached mercantile interests to the proprietary grant by the tradi­tional means of granting commercial monopolies and giving real estate rewards to leading merchants.

The truth of the matter was that Penn’s finances were in a shaky posi­tion, probably due to earlier mismanage­ment but also – as he had been quick to point out – due to his expenditures on the Quaker cause, the high cost of ob­taining a royal charter and the continu­ing burden of getting Pennsylvania set­tled. Having been granted 47 million acres in America, he intended to recoup his wealth.

However, it was not economic considerations alone which led Penn to pursue his proprietary privileges. Perhaps be­cause of his continuing conflict with his father at a crucial time in his life, Penn was a paternalist as well as a republican, a traditionalist as well as an innovator. He might look to the past as well as to the future. Thus, the Provincial Coun­cil, as he first conceived it, was to be hereditary. The popular Assembly, orig­inally the possessor of great power, was finally reduced to passing on bills ini­tiated jointly by the governor and the Provincial Council.

It has been argued that Penn made these changes to attract the financial backing of conservative Quakers. But it must also be noticed that he was himself unsure about how much of his power ought to be passed to the people, and for this reason he regarded the Frame of Government with uncertainty, observing in the preface of that document: “there is hardly one frame of government in the world so ill designed by its first found­ers, that in good hands would not do well enough . . . governments depend upon men than men upon governments.” Political experience in Pennsylvania was the proving ground for this statement, as Penn’s vision of the good society and the right government were put to the test.

More immediately, however, Penn had to face other realities of settle­ment in the New World. There were, of course, both aborigines and Europeans living along the Delaware. Penn never doubted that the Quakers traveling to Pennsylvania could Jive peaceably with the natives, and he took concrete steps to achieve this end. In Certain Condi­tions and Concessions (1681), he dic­tated a careful regulation of trade for the Indians’ protection as well as a policy of equal rights and privileges before the law. He cautioned his com­missioners to “buy land of them …. ” He emphasized the similarities between English and aboriginal cultures, remind­ing the Indians of his and their depen­dence on “one Great God …. ” Once in Pennsylvania he wrote about the natives with understanding rare in an English­man. While the prevailing attitude in Massachusetts had been and continued to be that Indians were savage, or worse, agents of the devil, Penn may have erred in the opposite direction by failing to give due weight to the real differences between the natives and the intruders. The former, it turned out, needed even more protection than Penn provided.

But the real Indian problems lay in the future, many miles west of the Dela­ware. Europeans were concentrated on the river itself, and for Penn to be able to establish the “green country town” he dreamed of, land occupied by them had to be purchased. Still, there was not real estate enough on the Philadelphia waterfront for Penn to carry through on his promise to grant urban lots in direct proportion to the size of the parcels bought in the countryside. When priori­ties had to be decided, the wealthy mer­chant investors got preferential treat­ment. Otherwise, however, Philadelphia did reflect the proprietor’s desires for order (through the grid plan imposed on the site), open spaces and greenery, Quaker simplicity and lack of pretense.

But the disgruntled city dwellers called for a town charter, not the first sign of disaffection in the Province. Shortly after Penn’s arrival in 1682, he sum­moned delegates to approve the Frame of Government, the Forty Laws agreed upon in England and about fifty addi­tional laws. Lengthy debate and dissent led to the rejection of nineteen laws and the proposal, in violation of the Frame, that any member could offer legislation. When the Council and Assembly were convened for the first time in 1683, and the sizes of both were drastically reduced, Penn argued successfully for the right to veto all legislation (as allowed in his royal charter) with the “advice and con­sent” of the Council, while the Assem­bly had to be satisfied with the “Privi­lege of conferring” with governor and Council on law making. In the lower house, members from the future colony of Delaware – Europeans whose settle­ment antedated Pennsylvania – were notably disaffected.

Disunity was accentuated with the ar­rival, in the late summer of 1683, of Ger­mans who wanted to Live apart from the English Quakers. Nor was Germantown the only ethnic enclave in the Province, as Quakers from Wales settled into their own tract. Penn was eager to sell the land, and did so; but he had no intention of allowing his province to degenerate into several segregated regions.

It was, in fact, his desire to keep a hold on the several counties comprising Delaware that sent him scurrying back to England less than two years after his arrival in Pennsylvania. He later la­mented, after nearly two decades of being buffeted about in his role as mediator: “You cannot easily imagine the difficul­ties I lie under, what with the King’s affairs, those of the Government, and my Proprietary ones … ’tis I that pay the reckoning.” To this realistic ap­praisal of his untenable position should be added the observation that Penn ex­pected gratitude and co-operation from people for whom be had provided a relig­ious haven, economic opportunities and political liberty.

But the Quakers who sailed to Penn­sylvania, having had to overcome opposition within the Society of Friends to their leaving England, fastened on the promises made in Penn’s promotional literature with tenacity. They, too, had the highest hopes for their New World venture; and the Proprietor’s adapta­tions to American realities, his compro­mises which seemed to favor some set­tlers over others, could be viewed as betrayals. Indeed, in the very act of tak­ing individual command over their fate, Penn flew in the face of Quaker anti­authoritarianism.

As Penn departed his province in 1684, leaving his affairs in the hands of friends who controlled the Council and the courts and concurred in his hierarchical view of politics. be admonished the in­habitants: “Oh, now you are come to a quiet land, provoke not the Lord to trouble it. … Truly, the name and hon­our of the Lord are deeply concerned in you, as to the discharge of yourselves, in your present stations; many eyes being upon you.” During the next decade and a half, through the reigns of James II, William and Mary, through the years of imperial reorganization, Penn knew the eyes of English officialdom were con­stantly on Pennsylvania, and his unceas­ing plea to the colonists was for peace and quiet in provincial politics.

He was always disappointed. The men whom he had left to carry on his work became his uneasy allies, jealous of their newly-gained prerogatives and dissatis­fied with proprietary land policy. Yet Penn had no choice but to strengthen their hand as the Assembly members became more assertive. Penn’s attempt to achieve stability through the agency of a governor with a military back­ground was a total failure, and the situa­tion degenerated further when schism rocked the Society of Friends in the early 1690s. A governor appointed by the crown was no more successful in taking control; indeed, his power to appoint a Council and veto the legislation of the Assembly only led to the investment of greater power in the lower house through the Frame of Government of 1696.

The royal governor lasted only a year, and Pennsylvania was again in the hands of its proprietor in 1694. Yet Penn, whose whole energy was focused on protecting the Province from incur­sions by the home government, was no more powerful than before. In fact, by the late 1690s anti-proprietary sentiment had found its most resonant voice in the person of David Lloyd, once Attorney General of the province and a consum­mate politician who showed scant regard for the absent proprietor.

Penn, meanwhile, was being pressed in England to bring his Province in line with the Navigation Act of 1696, symbol of renewed vigor in the realm of colonial affairs. The Board of Trade, created in the same year, was presenting evidence that Philadelphia merchants sought to circumvent the new regulations. An­glicans in the City of Brotherly Love claimed to be persecuted. The proprietor decided to return to Pennsylvania and deal with these problems himself.

Despite these deeply troublesome mat­ters, the vision of William Penn for his New World venture had been at least partly fulfilled by the time of his return in 1699. Philadelphia had grown to 5,000 inhabitants, equal in size to New York and only slightly lagging behind Boston. Evidence of surplus wealth, economic mobility and social distinction was immediately apparent in the city’s hous­ing, and it could be seen that urban pros­perity was related to the richness of the surrounding countryside. Anglican com­plaints of persecution could be viewed in the context of growing diversity in Phila­delphia, the underside of which was the presence of black slaves. Still, the wealth derived from commerce had presented Penn with the mission of bringing pro­vincial trade within the confines of the Navigation Acts. The policy of tolera­tion which assured cultural variety had fostered more division than harmony. Republican government went hand-in­-hand with political factionalism and anti-proprietary pronouncements.

And Penn still had not pulled himself out of debt. In 1699 his plight was worse than ever, for he had been systematically defrauded by his steward to the tune of £11,000, and the crown was dunning him for £6,000 more in rents and profits from Delaware. Having invested more than the total of these sums in Pennsyl­vania, he felt he could fairly recover his losses simply by closing accounts on land sales and back quitrents. But his attempt to carry out this plan met with cries of outrage and almost total unwillingness to co-operate.

The man Penn placed in charge of this task was his Scotch-Irish secretary, James Logan, who had arrived with him. Young and vigorous, intelligent and effi­cient, Logan was also cold, formal and disdainful of the political pretensions of his fellow Quakers in Pennsylvania, writing in 1704: “This people think privileges their due and all that can be grasped to be their native right. . . . Charters here have been, or I doubt will be, of fatal consequence; some people’s brains are as soon intoxicated with power as the natives are with their be­loved liquor, and as little to be trusted with it.” Logan was destined to make a travesty of Penn’s policy of fair dealing with the Indians. And he never endeared the colonists to the proprietor in the many years he represented Penn’s in­terests.

For Penn again spent less than two years in Pennsylvania. When a bill for uniting tile charter and proprietary colo­nies to the crown emerged in Parliament in 1701, he believed that only he could protect the Province and began planning his return, leaving Logan as proprietary secretary, provincial secretary, clerk of the Council, a commissioner of property and receiver general. David Lloyd, who had already been dismissed as Attorney General and was the acknowledged leader of the popular forces, forced a settle­ment of the critical matters of land and government.

The Frame of Government of 1701, or the Charter of Privileges, was the work of the Assembly and represented a rejec­tion of Penn’s thinking on the nature of political institutions. The devices found in the original Frame of 1682 – a bi­cameral legislature with a powerful upper house, the ballot, indirect elec­tion, rotation – were omitted from the new instrument of government. The Pennsylvania Assembly became the only such unicameral body in the British Em­pire, with the right to initiate legislation, elect officers and appoint Committees, and decide who could sit and the length of the session. The Council would be ap­pointed by the proprietor but have no role in the legislative process.

Furthermore, Penn consented to hav­ing all matters of property handled in provincial courts. Although he did not approve of the new Frame, he noted later that “it was carried by so great a majority that I see no blame.” He also justified his concessions on the grounds that the colonists deserved greater auton­omy in case he lost his government to the crown. The Frame of Government of 1701 lasted until 1776.

To this Charter of Privileges Penn at­tached a clause for the political separa­tion of Delaware from Pennsylvania, thus weakening his own hold on the region. He also approved passage of the Judiciary Act which, even more certainly than the Charter of Privileges, was the handiwork of David Lloyd. For the first time, original and appellate jurisdictions were defined and the functions of each court in the system were described.

Thus, as Penn set sail for England in the autumn of 1701, casting a last look at Pennsylvania, control of provincial affairs was passing out of his hands. No doubt David Lloyd and his followers would have said that they had prevented the will of one man from hindering the good of a whole country. Certainly, in matters of liberty and privilege the Pennsylvanians had that which was ex­traordinary, though they were not as yet ready to share their power with non­-Quakers. Yet Penn’s concern for liberty of conscience was no longer an issue; that had been settled in 1689 with the ac­cession of William and Mary. Penn’s worries about his personal fortunes were not resolved in America, despite the fact that a wealthy merchant community emerged in Philadelphia. Penn died deeply in debt.

Pennsylvanians, whether they ac­knowledged it or not, were in his debt, as well. For without his vision and his ability to translate that vision into some sort of reality, they had no reason to believe they would have been in America. While his vision did not include a con­cept of an open and pluralistic society as we would understand it, he did reject the closed society of England, as the Puri­tans did not. He believed in liberty of conscience rather than the coercion of beliefs. And he wanted to provide a haven for the persecuted. But he simply and naively assumed that persons of dif­ferent beliefs should be able to get along. He wanted harmony, social as well as religious.

Penn was always uncomfortable with the separatist tendencies in the early Ger­man and Welch communities of Penn­sylvania. He never anticipated major conflicts between the intruding Euro­peans and resident Indians. Any idea of Pennsylvania as a melting pot of various ethnic and racial groups lay outside the bounds of thinking about the Province. Indeed, as an advocate of social har­mony, Penn might well have explicitly rejected pluralism had he pondered its divisive consequences. His policy, however, was to encourage immigration for religious and economic reasons. In that sense he did not so much create diversity in Pennsylvania as he let it happen.


For Further Reading

Beatty, Edwin C. O. William Penn as Social Philosopher. New York: Octagon Books, 1975 [reprint of 1939 edition].

Dunn, Mary M. William Penn: Politics and Conscience. Prince­ton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Ulick, Joseph E. Colonial Pennsylvania: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976.

____. William Penn, The Politician. Ithaca: Cornell Univer­sity Press, 1965.

Janney, Samuel M. The Life of William Penn: With Selections from his Correspondence and Autobiography. Philadel­phia: Hogan, Perkins & Co., 1852.

Penn, William. The Select Works of William Penn. Edited by John Fothergill. 3 vols. New York: Krause Reprint Co., 1971 [reprint of 1825 edition].

Trussell, John B. B., Jr. William Penn: Architect of a Nation. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1980.


Joseph E. Ulick, professor of history at San Francisco State University, holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsyl­vania. He is the author of William Penn the Politician (1965) and Colonial Penn­sylvania: A History (1976), the editor of America & England, 1558-1776 (1970) and has written numerous articles and reviews. He is currently at work on a study of four generations in twentieth-­century Bethlehem.