Penn became convinced that religious toleration couldn’t be achieved in
England. He went to the King and asked for a charter enabling him to establish an American colony. Perhaps the idea seemed like an easy way to get rid of troublesome Quakers. On March 4, 1681, Charles II signed a charter for territory west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland, approximately the present size of Pennsylvania, where about a thousand Germans, Dutch and Indians lived without any particular government. The King proposed the name “Pennsylvania” which meant “Forests of Penn”–honoring Penn’s late father, the Admiral. Penn would be proprietor, owning all the land, accountable directly to the King. According to traditional accounts, Penn agreed to cancel the debt of £16,000 which the government owed the Admiral for back pay, but there aren’t any documents about such a deal. At the beginning of each year, Penn had to give the King two beaver skins and a fifth of any gold and silver mined within the territory.
Penn sailed to America on the ship Welcome and arrived November 8, 1682. With assembled Friends, he founded Philadelphia–he chose the name, which means “city of brotherly love” in Greek. He approved the site between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. He envisioned a 10,000 acre city, but his more sober-minded Friends thought that was overly optimistic. They accepted a 1,200-acre plan. Penn named major streets including Broad, Chestnut, Pine, and Spruce.
Penn was most concerned about developing a legal basis for a free society. In his First Frame of Government, which Penn and initial land purchasers had adopted on April 25, 1682, he expressed ideals anticipating the Declaration of Independence: “Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature … no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent.”
Penn provided that there would be a governor–initially, himself–whose powers were limited. He would work with a Council (72 members) which proposed legislation and a General Assembly (up to 500 members) which either approved or defeated it. Each year, about a third of members would be elected for three-year terms. As governor, Penn would retain a veto over proposed legislation.
His First Frame of Government provided for secure private property, virtually unlimited free enterprise, a free press, trial by jury and, of course, religious toleration. Whereas the English penal code specified the death penalty for some 200 offenses, Penn reserved it for just two–murder and treason. As a Quaker, Penn encouraged women to get an education and speak out as men did. He called Pennsylvania his “Holy Experiment.”
Penn insisted on low taxes. A 1683 law established a low tax on cider and liquor, a low tariff on imports and on exported hides and furs. To help promote settlement, Penn suspended all taxes for a year. When the time came to re-impose taxes he encountered fierce resistance and had to put it off.
Penn’s First Frame of Government was the first constitution to provide for peaceful change through amendments. A proposed amendment required the consent of the governor and 85 percent of the elected representatives. Benevolent though Penn was, people in Pennsylvania were disgruntled about his executive power as proprietor and governor. People pressed to make the limitations more specific and to provide stronger assurances about the prerogatives of the legislature. The constitution was amended several times. The version adopted on October 28, 1701 endured for three-quarters of a century and then became the basis for Pennsylvania’s state constitution, adopted in 1776.
Collecting rent due Penn as proprietor was always a headache. He never earned enough from the colonies to offset the costs of administration which he paid out of his personal capital. Toward the end of his life, he complained that Pennsylvania was a net loss, costing him some £30,000.
Penn achieved peaceful relations with the Indians–Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and Leni-Lenape. Indians respected his courage, because he ventured among them without guards or personal weapons. He was a superior sprinter who could out-run Indian braves, and this helped win him respect. He took the trouble to learn Indian dialects, so he could conduct negotiations without interpreters. From the very beginning, he acquired Indian land through peaceful, voluntary exchange. Reportedly, Penn concluded a “Great Treaty” with the Indians at Shackamaxon, near what is now the Kensington district of Philadelphia. Voltaire hailed this as “the only treaty between those people [Indians and Christians] that was not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed.” His peaceful policies prevailed for about 70 years, which has to be some kind of record in American history.
Penn faced tough challenges defending Pennsylvania back in England. There was a lot at stake, because Pennsylvania had become the best hope for persecuted people in England, France, and Germany. Charles II tried to establish an intolerant absolutism modeled after that of the French King Louis XIV. Concerned that Pennsylvania’s charter might be revoked, Penn turned on his diplomatic charm.
Behind the scenes, Penn worked as a remarkable diplomat for religious toleration. Every day, as many as 200 petitioners waited outside Holland House, his London lodgings, hoping for an audience and help. He intervened personally with the King to save scores of Quakers from a death sentence. He got Society of Friends founder George Fox out of jail. He helped convince the King to proclaim the Acts of Indulgence which released more than a thousand Quakers–many had been imprisoned for over a dozen years.
Penn’s fortunes collapsed after a son was born to James II in 1688. A Catholic succession was assured. The English rebelled and welcomed the Dutch King William of Orange as William III, who overthrew the Stuarts without having to fire a shot. Suddenly, Penn’s Stuart connections were a terrible liability. He was arrested for treason. The government seized his estates. Though he was cleared by November 1690, he was marked as a traitor again. He became a fugitive for four years, hiding amidst London’s squalid slums. His friend John Locke helped restore his good name in time to see his wife, Guli, die on February 23, 1694. She was 48.
Harsh experience had taken its toll on Penn. As biographer Hans Fantel put it, “he was getting sallow and paunchy. The years of hiding, with their enforced inactivity, had robbed him of his former physical strength and grace. His stance was now slightly bent, and his enduring grief over the death of Guli had cast an air of listless abstraction over his face. “ His spirits revived two years later when he married 30-year-old Hannah Callowhill, the plain and practical daughter of a Bristol linen draper.
But he faced serious problems because of his sloppy business practices. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered with administrative details, and his business manager, fellow Quaker Philip Ford, embezzled substantial sums from Penn’s estates. Worse, Penn signed papers without reading them . One of the papers turned out to be a deed transferring Pennsylvania to Ford who demanded rent exceeding Penn’s ability to pay. After Ford’s death in 1702, his wife, Bridget, had Penn thrown in debtor’s prison, but her cruelty backfired. It was unthinkable to have such a person govern a major colony, and in 1708 the Lord Chancellor ruled that “the equity of redemption still remained in William Penn and his heirs.”
In October 1712, Penn suffered a stroke while writing a letter about the future of Pennsylvania. Four months later, he suffered a second stroke.
While he had difficulty speaking and writing, he spent time catching up with his children whom he had missed during his missionary travels. He died on July 30, 1718. He was buried at Jordans, next to Guli.
Long before his death, Pennsylvania ceased to be a spiritual place dominated by Quakers. Penn’s policy of religious toleration and peace–no military conscription–attracted all kinds of war-weary European immigrants. There were English, Irish, and Germans, Catholics, Jews, and an assortment of Protestant sects including Dunkers, Huguenots, Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Pietists, and Schwenkfelders. Liberty brought so many immigrants that by the American Revolution Pennsylvania had grown to some 300,000 people and became one of the largest colonies. Pennsylvania was America’s first great melting pot.
Philadelphia was America’s largest city with almost 18,000 people. It was a major commercial center–sometimes more than a hundred trading ships anchored there during a single day. People in Philadelphia could enjoy any of the goods available in England. Merchant companies, shipyards, and banks flourished. Philadelphia thrived as an entrepôt between Europe and the American frontier.
With an atmosphere of liberty, Philadelphia emerged as an intellectual center. Between 1740 and 1776, Philadelphia presses issued an estimated 11,000 works including pamphlets, almanacs, and books. In 1776, there were seven newspapers reflecting a wide range of opinions. No wonder Penn’s “city of brotherly love” became the most sacred site for American liberty, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and delegates drafted the Constitution.
By creating Pennsylvania, Penn set an enormously important example for liberty. He showed that people who are courageous enough, persistent enough, and resourceful enough can live free. He went beyond the natural right theories of his friend John Locke and showed how a free society would actually work. He showed how individuals of different races and religions can live together peacefully when they mind their own business. He affirmed the resilient optimism of free people.
Source: http://www.ushistory.org/penn/bio.htm; Independence Hall Association, Philadelphia, PA., edited.