William Penn, Our Proprietor


by Burt Froom

West Mt. Airy:  Yesterday and Today

February, 2014 (Article 13)


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This is the first of three articles about the founder of Philadelphia, William Penn, too gigantic of a figure to understand easily. This column reviews his life; next month his Quaker political philosophy; and in April, appraising his impact. I admit that I am not a Friend and I am meeting William Penn for the first time. I value the faith of my Quaker friends and hope you will meet William Penn in new ways. Thank you for your trust.



William Penn (1644-1718), was the son of English Admiral Sir William Penn and Margaret Jasper, descendant of a Dutch family whose father was a rich merchant. Penn’s father served in the Commonwealth navy during the English Civil War, and was rewarded by the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, with estates in Ireland. He was educated by private tutors at Chigwell Grammar School in Essex , and at Oxford University. There, young William developed a quiet, more introspective personality compared to his robust father. As John Moretta, points out in his 2007 book, William Penn and the Quaker Legacy, Admiral Penn was like the legendary adventurers Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake of earlier generations. Admiral Penn commanded the easy seizure of the island of Jamaica from Spain for England in 1655.


Although Penn sought to copy the manliness and courage of his father, he grew into a somber young man given to reading. The estrangement from his father’s world, the overwhelming influence of his mother, and the feeling of being alone fed his mystical streak and led him to become a Quaker. When he was 11, he had his first mystical experience. In a moment of solitude, while he was praying, he felt a sudden inward peace, enlightenment in himself and a brightening of the room around him. This was his “discovery of God,” an experience unlike anyone in his family. His father was frequently away at sea on prolonged voyages, and was unable or unwilling to instruct his son in his values and the demands of a military life.


It was not until age 12, on the family estate, that young Penn spent much time with his father, Then, Penn learned the manners and responsibilities of a gentleman and courtier, including sword play. But unfortunately, it was too late for Penn to embrace his father as a friend and confidant, and as a model of behavior. Penn read the Bible with fervor. At 13, he felt himself destined to live a holy life, but he concealed these inclinations carefully from his father.  Penn was now exposed to the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).


In 1660, Following Cromwell’s death in 1658, Charles II was restored to the throne. Sir William Penn was then welcomed back to London as an important member of the royal court. Young William Penn studied at Oxford, where he was friends with more pious students, and he studied law for two years at Lincoln’s Inn. The admiral sent Penn to study in France and maybe become more worldly. The Great Plague, which struck London in 1665, killed 70,000 Londoners. The Quakers impressed Penn with their courage while caring for the sick. William Penn converted to the Quakers. He was now an aristocrat giving up his privileges, an unarmed man in an armed world, a Quaker.


William Penn at age 22, wearing armor as an army
officer in Ireland, before becoming a Quaker.


The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid meetings of more than five persons, and the 1665 Five Mile Act resulted in the imprisonment of 15,000 Quakers during the reign of Charles II.  Admiral Penn was furious at his son for disrespecting the king. Penn said he was obeying God. No matter how Penn sought to escape his father’s world, he remained all his life an inextricable part of his father’s milieu, the son of a personal friend of Charles II.  Penn used his skills as a writer and speaker for the cause of liberty. His published tracts were widely influential.


Penn was incarcerated in the Tower of London for nine months from late 1668 on charges of blasphemy for his refutation of the Trinity and Jesus’s divinity. He was released from the Tower in 1669 when he modified his views to accept the more orthodox view of Jesus. Quakers now suffered the full wrath and bigotry of the Anglican Church. Quaker meeting houses were policed and worshippers arrested. Penn decided to challenge the Conventicle Act. He was arrested again for causing “unlawful and tumultuous assembly” by talking to Friends on the street outside of meeting. This was the famous ”Bushel Case” of 1670. The jurors refused to find Penn guilty of sedition and fomenting insurrection. Penn refused to pay a fine. He and the jurors were sent to the infamous Newgate Prison until they would deliver the right verdict which the judge sought. The Bushel Case was eventually tried by England’s highest court, the House of Lords, who decided that a jury must have the right to hand in a verdict based on the facts as the jurors see them without coercion from the judge.


By his acts of civil disobedience, Penn sought to transform society and assert fundamental rights for every Englishman or woman, including liberty of conscience. Penn embraced Quaker pacifism. Admiral Penn paid his son’s fine so he could leave prison to say farewell. Sir William told his son, “I charge you to do nothing against your conscience.” William Penn and his father found reconciliation. Penn began traveling about England, preaching Quaker truth. He was arrested again for violating the Conventicle Act in 1671. He hoped to convince England that it was persecution, not dissent, that destroys government, religion, prosperity and peace.


During this time, Penn became seriously interested in George Fox’s idea of an American refuge for Quakers. In 1680, William Penn formally appealed to King Charles for a land bounded by the Delaware River, New York, and Maryland, to be a Quaker colony. Penn proposed an arrangement in which the king would make restitution of the money (16,000 pounds) that Admiral Penn once “loaned” to the king, by making a land grant to William Penn, Jr. In addition, King Charles shrewdly hoped that these troublesome Quakers would leave England in large numbers. In April 1681, Penn’s charter from the king made him the “True and Absolute Proprietor” of an empire of 45,000 square miles, about half the size of Great Britain. No private citizen in English history ever possessed so much land.


King Charles insisted that Penn call his “country” “Pennsylvania” in honor of Admiral William Penn. The new colony was inhabited by one thousand or so Dutch and Swedish settlers, Penn promised the settlers that they would “be governed by laws of your own making.” By the year 1700, there were 18,000 people living in Pennsylvania. And Philadelphia, with 4,500 residents, was the third largest city in British North America, after Boston and New York.


Penn’s proprietary powers far exceeded those of Lord Baltimore in Maryland or the Lords Proprietary in the Carolinas. Penn welcomed non-Quakers (to the dismay of Quakers), promising them all equal rights and opportunities. Penn wanted to create an ideal Christian society, a “holy experiment.” He wanted to prove that Quaker beliefs were compatible with good government. However, Penn never conceived of Pennsylvania as a radically egalitarian society. His essential conservative thinking asserted itself.


Penn recruited widely to attract wealthy Quaker merchants as colonists. He established the Free Society of Traders to expand economic development. The majority of the first colonists were from England. Pennsylvania was meant to be meritocracy, rule by persons who have the right to make decisions for the commonweal by demonstrating superior decision-making ability. Penn’s political thinking was fluid and pragmatic. He was both conservative and humane, a product of his faith in his patrician values. He desired to be an architect of brotherhood, to create a better society. His legacy endures. Surprisingly, William Penn actually resided in Pennsylvania for less than four years during two visits, (1682-1684 and 1699-1701). Otherwise, he chose to live in England to defend his ownership of Pennsylvania against his enemies, while chosen representatives exercised his proprietary authority.


William Penn married twice: His first wife was Guilielma Maria (“Guli”) Springett (1644-1696), the strikingly beautiful daughter of William Springett and Lady Mary Proude, Penn’s age and heiress of a London Quaker merchant’s fortune.  They had eight children, of whom three survived childhood: Letitia (1678-1746), married to William Aubrey; William Jr. (“Billy”), married to Mary Jones; and Springett (1675-1696), his father’s favorite. Guli died at age 52.


William Penn’s second wife was Hannah Margaret Callowhill (1671-1726). They married in 1696, when she was 25 and Penn was 52. Hannah was of a wealthy Quaker family. They had ten children. Surviving infancy were: John Penn (1700-1746), never married; Thomas Penn (1701-1775), who married Lady Juliana Fermor; and Richard Penn, Sr., (1705-1771).


Hannah Penn inherited Pennsylvania from William and she administered the colony effectively as proprietor until her death by stroke eight years after Penn’s. John and Thomas Penn followed Hannah as proprietors, but they renounced their father’s Quaker religion and became Anglicans. They were accused of robbing the Indians, who trusted Penn, in the 1737 Walking Purchase scandal – which made them rich.


Penn owned as many as 14 slaves in the late 1680s, but increased Quaker anti-slavery protests forced Penn to use white indentured servants on his estate by the time of his second sojourn there. He still owned two slaves, Yaffe and Chevalier, when he returned to England. He manumitted them in 1712, but they were “retained” by the Penn family until they died in the late 1740s. Some Friends followed Penn’s example by freeing their slaves. Penn insisted that every human being was a creature of God, equal in God’s sight, but he saw nothing wrong with controlling the labor of workmen, white or black.


Penn’s sincere policy of cultivating the goodwill of the Lenni-Lenape Indians of Pennsylvania contributed significantly to the colony’s rapid growth and financial success. His policy of respect and amity allowed the colony to enjoy prolonged peace with the nearby tribes. The Lenni-Lenape numbered about 5,000 people at Penn’s arrival. In his first meeting with them, he told the Indians, “The King of the Country where I live, hath given me a great Province but I desire to enjoy it with your Love and Consent, that we may always live together as neighbors and friends…”


Since before his first visit to Pennsylvania Penn’s steward, was Philip Ford, who paid Penn’s bills. It was Penn’s habit to sign bills from Ford without inspecting them because he trusted Ford. Ford claimed Penn owed him large sums. With Pennsylvania as collateral, Penn then sold Pennsylvania to Ford, to pay his alleged debts! At age 62, in 1708, Penn suffered the humiliation of a seven month imprisonment in the Fleet, London’s famous debtor’s prison. Then John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Chancellor, intervened for his fellow aristocrat to lower the debt and get Penn released. Penn was now bankrupt and had to accept gifts from wealthy friends. How could this disgrace have happened? John Moretta suggests that Ford resented Penn’s lavish life style which Ford labored to build without compensation from Penn. But Moretta points out that Penn’s inability to live modestly within his means as a Quaker was a  “character defect” that led to his destitution.


After suffering three strokes in 1712, William Penn lived on in his English estate until 1718, tended by his wife, but without memories, unaware of visitors or his surroundings. As Moretta puts it, “It was Penn’s faith-inspired vision of creating in the wilderness of North America a place where all who came would be guaranteed fundamental human rights that no one should be denied…”  Today, William Penn still presides over the citizens of his City of Brotherly Love, from his perch atop the City Hall Tower.


I want to thank West Mt. Airy residents, Tom Armstrong and Susan Bockius, who have been active Friends, for their help in understanding William Penn, and Jaime Kehler for his editorial help. I am indebted to John A. Moretta, for his book William Penn and the Quaker Legacy, upon which I have drawn extensively for this and the next two articles about William Penn.


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