Penn’s Woods

In honor of my former home state, I had to write this one up: On March 4, 1681, King Charles II granted William Penn a charter for a tract of land in the New World that would eventually become Pennsylvania.

The charter, which was issued to satisfy a debt Charles owed Penn’s Father, included land that is now Pennsylvania and Delaware. Penn set out for America immediately and landed in New Castle in 1682. Having been jailed for his religious beliefs in the past (Penn became a Quaker at the age of 22), William was eager to establish a place where it would be safe for the Friends to practice as they pleased. They’d already gained a foothold in New Jersey—buying up half the state and founding Burlington—but Penn wanted more. After some persuading, the king and the Duke of York (who actually owned the territory) acquiesced and handed the land over. The area was first called New Wales, then Sylvania before Charles added the “Penn” to the beginning, in honor of William’s father, a highly respected admiral.

Even before leaving England, Pen drew up a Frame of Government for the colony, in which freedom of worship was to be absolute and all the traditional rights of Englishmen would be safeguarded. He also drafted a charter of liberties guaranteeing trial by jury, free elections, and freedom from unjust imprisonment. In addition, he was determined not to take advantage of the natives—a fairly uncommon stance at the time.

Penn used his considerable PR skills to attract settlers, and when he set out, he’d parceled out 300,000 acres to 250 people. He also managed to attract other persecuted minorities from across Europe, including Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews.

The new land Penn envisioned was a sort of political utopia (especially for the time) in which power was derived from the people, the power of those in charge was checked, government was split into two houses, and only the crimes of treason and murder could be punishable by death (in England at the time, 200 crimes were punishable by death). Prisons would be correctional workshops instead of places of nightmarish confinement.

Although Penn was a man of big ideas, he wasn’t sufficiently attentive to the details, and his business manager, Philip Ford, took advantage of that. Ford embezzled substantial amounts of money from Penn’s estates and tricked his employer into signing ownership of Pennsylvania over to him so he could ask for an enormous sum of money in return. After Ford died in 1702, the Lord Chancellor in England declared that William Penn and his heirs would retain ownership of Pennsylvania.

After an 18-year absence, Penn returned to the colonies with his family to find the area much changed. Pennsylvania now had almost 18,000 residents, and Philadelphia’s population had passed 3,000. The  city was developing just they way he’d hoped, with green urban spaces and shops full of imported merchandise that proved America could be a viable market for English goods. Even better, religious diversity seemed to be working out, and the Quaker grammar schools, which were open to anyone, were producing a fairly educated workforce that was turning Philadelphia into a leader in science and medicine.

Sadly, Penn’s vision of a utopian, tolerant society didn’t even last his lifetime. He returned to England with his family in 1701 and became distracted by debts and family problems. Back in Pennsylvania, his constitution was replaced with the colonists’ own Charter of Privileges, which gave the voters more power, eliminated the Upper House, and barred Jews and other non-believers from office. Desperate to appease his debtors, Penn attempted to sell Pennsylvania back to the crown twice; during the second attempt he suffered a stroke. A second stroke some months later left him incapacitated, and he slowly lost his memory. He died penniless at his home in Berkshire in 1718. His wife became de facto governor of her husband’s colony until her own death in 1726.

Although Pennsylvania drifted considerably from being a religious state to a secular one, enough of Penn’s legal and political innovations took root that Voltaire later praised it as the only government in the world responsible to the people and respectful of minority rights. Penn’s Frame of Government and other writings were later studied by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, and because of Penn’s religious tolerance Pennsylvania became a successful melting pot. His idea of creating an amendable constitution was later appropriated by Jefferson and the other founding fathers when planning out the current United States of America. Philadelphia thrived, becoming one of the most populous cities in the British Empire, a center of commerce, science, medicine, and politics.  And looking over it all, even today, is Penn himself, in bronze statue form, perched atop Philadelphia City Hall, serving as one of the city’s most enduring and noticeable landmarks.

One thought on “Penn’s Woods

  1. Fascinating as always. My maternal ancestors
    Came from Berne Switzerland in 1701 after
    A purchase of land from the Penn enterprise. They were Mennonites.

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