William Penn by Andrew R. Murphy

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

William Penn
A Life
by Andrew R. Murphy
Oxford University Press, 460 pp., cloth $34.95

In this deeply researched and richly detailed volume, Andrew R. Murphy provides the fullest biographical study to date of Pennsylvania founder and first proprietor William Penn. The author has mined sources on both sides of the Atlantic to give a life-and-times accounting of Penn’s ardent Quakerism, colonial ambitions, and political and financial maneuverings and failings. Murphy shows well how Penn’s Quaker conscience and convictions informed his public and private life, including his vision of a colony that would provide a welcoming haven of toleration and a profitable return on investment. By Murphy’s reckoning, Penn gained much of the former and little of the latter, in part because of Penn’s poor judgment in appointments and administration, his excessive personal expenses, and his sometimes unwise political allegiances. Murphy tracks Penn’s every move and misstep amid an unstable English political world and a refractory Pennsylvania one. In doing so, he reveals how Penn’s personal troubles magnified his colonial problems. He also points to the ways intramural struggles among Quakers and Quaker political interests in Pennsylvania compromised Penn’s vision and cost him control over his colony.

Murphy pulls together many recent interpretive threads of Penn and his world to cast him as a complex but compelling figure who was at once a vigorous defender of Quakers especially and religious freedom generally, a friend of representative government, and a brilliant promoter of his colony while also a man too blind to political realities in England and Pennsylvania, too driven by financial needs, and too preoccupied by having to defend his interests, and himself, in England to devote steady attention to his colony. Withal, Murphy also shows that Penn was always an Englishman as much as a Quaker and proprietor, an emphasis other biographers have not as much appreciated. Murphy sometimes loses his argument in his detailed descriptions of Penn’s every doing, however mundane, but the result is a book that brings us as close to revealing Penn on his terms as we likely will ever get.

Randall M. Miller
Saint Joseph’s University